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Diversity doesn't have to start at the top

Diversity - top down, bottom up and all around

“It starts at the top.”

It is a common phrase when it comes to driving change. 

Shifting priorities of the organization?

“It starts at the top”. 

Implementing a new organization mission?

“It starts at the top”.

Cultivating a strong organization culture?

“It starts at the top”.

But does it really? 

Starting at the top of an organization (i.e. the C-Suite) for an initiative is generally synonymous to saying that an initiative has priority, financial support, and accountability. But that doesn’t mean that starting at the top is the only way to make a difference in an organization. And in the case of hiring diversely, starting at the top could be the fastest way to fail.

Diversity “starting at the top” is upside down

Many industries and/or roles suffer from a common diversity challenge – missing or greatly under-represented demographics within their workforce. For example, a lack of people of color in technology, lack of women driving big rig vehicles, lack of men in nursing and personal care roles. etc.

There are great strides in correcting this common challenge in many industries. But some organizations are approaching it with the same “it starts at the top” mentality we love so much, such as demographic diversity goals for the board of directors, the C-Suite, and executives. The idea is that if there is more diversity at the top, than it’s more likely that those decision makers will hire more diversely and promote more inclusive programs. The intent is noble (in many cases), but is it practical?

This diversity challenge is not new; we inherited it from years, decades, centuries of inequity in hiring and promotion practices. With such a long history of missing demographics, these industries/roles have not yet cultivated enough diverse talent to fill out the ranks “starting at the top”. 

For example, if an industry has a history of never hiring woman to an entry level role, than there are no women to promote into lower, middle, and upper management, and ultimately no women with the right experience to take on roles in the C-Suite or on the board. Therefore, initiatives like “must have at least 20% of executive team being women” is forcing organizations to either:

  1. Hire unqualified talent, ultimately setting up the individual, the diversity program, and in some cases the organization for failure.

  2. Fight over the limited available talent of specific demographics rather than bringing in new talent, which defeats the point of diversity programs while driving up the costs of the individuals.

Doesn’t this seem backward?

Infusing diversity starts at the bottom:

To break out of this diversity challenge at every rank, we must start at the bottom, not the top. Cultivate talent from the ground up, starting with fair, equitable hiring and promotion practices, and infusing every level with equitable, inclusive talent management, training, and access to opportunity. More specifically, support “top down” but act “bottom up” because today’s entry level is tomorrow’s managers, senior level contributors, and the next day’s executives and board members. 

We may have inherited a diversity challenge, but that doesn’t mean we have to pass it along to our children. Together we can remove bias one hire at a time, bringing equity, inclusion and more diverse work space for tomorrow – from the bottom up.

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