Improving Diversity, One Network at a Time

Earlier in the course, we were introduced to the idea that most job recommendations come from people with whom you share a weak tie because the knowledge you possess independent of your peers is already largely identical to the knowledge possessed by people with whom you share strong ties. However, according to a new study published by McGill University (summarized here), these recommendations not only help you get a job but also help your new employers increase diversity within their own businesses.

A lack of diversity in the workplace is one of the most pressing challenges currently facing millennials in America. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that about 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are black, and less than 5 percent are women. Surprisingly, researchers and companies alike have begun to agree that a solution will not be reached by focusing on individual hires or select students from certain universities, but will instead be reached by focusing on networks. Brian Rubineau, assistant professor of organizational behavior at McGill University, and Roberto Fernandez, professor of organization studies at MIT, found that the implicit biases that exist within workplace culture can be embraced to promote diversity. Implicit biases, which are deeply rooted in our society, naturally lead us to be drawn to and select people who are similar to us. Rubineau and Fernandez verified this implicit bias and furthermore found that men and women have similar referring rates, with men referring roughly as many men as women recommend women. However, the crux of their study was showing that the ubiquity of implicit biases can be turned into an opportunity. “You could get the underrepresented group to refer more to counteract that segregating effect,” Rubineau says. He continued by explaining that their methodology, which focused namely on gender diversity, could be expanded and applied to figure out referral patterns across other categories, including race, ethnicity, and disability.

Some companies, most notably Pinterest, have already begun to implement this strategy. Over a six-week period earlier this year, the company saw a 24 percent increase in female referrals and 55 times as many candidates from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds. The Posse Foundation, another proponent of improving diversity through networks, has been using this methodology for decades. It selects “Posse Scholars” from racially and socioeconomically underrepresented backgrounds with leadership potential and sends them, in groups of 10, to one of its 55 partner colleges and universities, which include Vanderbilt, Middlebury, and Dartmouth. Beyond college, the Posse Foundation also helps place its scholars into internships at some of the country’s most prominent businesses, such as Bank of America and Viacom. The idea behind the foundation is that its scholars will become leaders at their universities, making the schools more appealing to people in their networks with similar backgrounds and thus increasing diversity.

Long term, Rubineau and Fernandez envision this strategy being used in the majority of businesses across the country in order to effectively address the root of the issue of a lack of diversity in the workplace. According to their study, word-of-mouth recruiting accounts for more than half of job-matching in the U.S., meaning that an expansive implementation of this strategy would directly address the heart of the problem and would make significant strides in the right direction.

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