Attack of the clones Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

If someone says “diversity,” what is your initial reaction?

Carl Camden thinks he has a pretty good idea.

“If you did a poll, I’m certain it would be racial background, ethnicity, gender, maybe lifestyles if you’re more enlightened,” he says. “When you talk about diversity, people tend to go into a little bit of a dazed-eye look. They’ve been there, they’ve heard many presentations on diversity and all the things you’re supposed to do.”

Camden, the president and CEO of $5.7-billion staffing and recruiting giant Kelly Services Inc., has seen firsthand through decades in business how companies can cross over from diversity awareness to diversity overkill. And he wants to change it by changing the way people in business think about diversity.

More specifically, he wants to write a new definition for diversity as it pertains to business. In a company, diversity shouldn’t simply pertain to employing people of varying skin colors or ethnic backgrounds. He says that the true meaning of diversity is employing people with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

In a society where people from various ethnic backgrounds now frequently share the same experiences during their formative years, it’s no longer enough to assume that people from different races, ethnicities or genders will bring different perspectives to the table.

“Just because we don’t look alike doesn’t mean we don’t think alike,” Camden says. “It used to be easy to assume that you were guaranteeing the company diversity of thinking or background if you achieve apparent diversity in age, ethnic origin and gender makeup of the staff. Now, we’re arguing that just because you achieve that doesn’t mean that you have the wide range of background and thought that you’re looking for.”

Camden says diversity shouldn’t be viewed as a buzzword or a goal you set simply to make your company look socially progressive. It’s a real issue with real consequences for your balance sheet, and it takes serious thought and planning to address.

Recognize the benefits

Diversity helps your business in a very tangible way if you approach it correctly. A diverse work force will help you sell your products and services to a diverse customer base.

“The understanding of the markets you are targeting is always better if you have people from a similar background as your customers,” Camden says. “My son and daughter, who are teenagers, the marketing to them is infinitely more effective if it’s being guided by people of the same generation, as opposed to people who only know that generation through market research. Nothing replaces having people who understand those who you are serving: the customers and the markets.”

Kelly Services’ leaders have had to learn how to use diversity to serve new markets over the years. Many people who grew up in decades past probably remember the “Kelly girl” moniker, an informal term for a clerical staffer hired and placed by the company. For years, Kelly Services was synonymous with secretaries and office workers. But as the staffing needs of businesses evolved, Kelly Services had to evolve, too. Overtime, the company began supplying engineering and technology firms with staffing help. But there was a problem, and diversity was at the root.

“We at Kelly and throughout the industry believed that anybody who was good at recruiting for our established core areas could do an equally fine job recruiting individuals who were from all of these specialty areas,” Camden says. “It turned out that we and others were wildly ineffective at recruiting inside some of these specialty areas until we got to the point of realizing something that now seems simple. We thought, ‘Gee, maybe the people who run the engineering branch and do recruiting should be engineers. Maybe the people who do the recruiting for accountants should be accountants.’”

When Kelly Services started hiring engineers to recruit engineers and accountants to recruit accountants, the company’s growth in those areas gained momentum and the company’s leaders gained a new perspective on how a workforce with diverse backgrounds could help the company conduct business.

“If you go back to pre-Internet days, if someone was looking for an office clerical job, they would pick up the paper and look at the want ads,” Camden says. “But engineers don’t do that. That’s not how you find them. You had to understand what professional associations they belong to, what are their interests and hobbies. It changed where you placed your ads; it changed where you put your recruiting efforts.”

Start with the interview

To find people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, you need to get to know job candidates beyond surface-level information. Unfortunately, the interview process for many companies doesn’t go beyond the surface when it comes to a candidate’s personal background.

“You need to spend as much time talking about their life experiences as their academic experiences,” Camden says. “What were their biggest challenges, how did they find their way into college, what were their difficulties in getting to college and being successful. You have to work with your HR department to find out what questions you can and can’t ask, but I think that we tend to gloss over background questions very quickly in the interview process.”

Camden allocates a larger portion of interviews for getting to know job candidates on a more personal level.

“I’m setting myself up so that a third of the interview is about their background and life experiences,” he says. “I do that because in my experiences when I’ve been sought after for a job, it’s basically,

‘Tell me something about yourself,’ and you typically answer, ‘I was born here, I went to this college, I studied this and my job is X and Y.’ All we really do when someone asks us to tell us something about ourselves is give a short summary of what is already on the resume. Then, the interviewer checks off the box and moves on to, ‘Tell me about your first job.’

“We don’t ask questions like, ‘How did you decide what college you were going to go to, how many majors did you have along the way before you settled down to become a journalism major, a biology major, and what made you change from one to the next?’”

Camden says human resources departments are coached to stay away from drilling down on personal information because it ventures too close to subjects like race, ethnicity and other areas that might open to door to questions that could be viewed as probing or even discriminatory.

It’s no secret that race and ethnicity are potentially touchy subjects around which you and your HR team should tread carefully during the interview process, but you shouldn’t go180 degrees in the other direction. Camden says that if you remain too distant from getting to know a candidate on a personal level, you’re staying in a comfort zone. That can lead your company to hire people based on familiarity and comfort level, which can be bad news if you’re trying to build a diverse work force.

“Your ears should perk up anytime someone in the company says, ‘Isn’t it amazing that we all ...,’ whatever that ‘all’ is,” he says. “‘Isn’t it amazing that we all went to the same school, all play golf, all belong to the same club,’ whatever it is. That’s a sign that the backgrounds of your people might be too homogenized.

“I was fortunate to have a boss very early on who, at a time when everyone at the top ranks of business played golf, asked me if I played golf. I said no, figuring that was going to be a negative response to him, and he said ‘Great. We need a nongolfer around here. That’s all they talk about around here is golf, so you make certain you talk about something else and bring in another perspective.’”

Camden says that when recruiting for a position, finding different backgrounds and perspectives should be more important than finding a comfortable fit.

“We, as leaders, have just got to stop telling our recruiters that a comfortable fit is the No. 1 criteria,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been called when someone is recruiting folks or pitching to folks and it all comes back to that comfortable fit.

“Tell me they believe the same core values we believe, that they possess a high sense of integrity, that’s fine. But when the pitch is all about the comfortable fit, it really has to be setting off some alarm bells. That can’t be first or second on the list we’re feeding our recruiters. It’s not rocket science; it’s a matter of raising the idea of diversity further up in the priority set.”

Communicate the concept

The comfort zone is an easy trap to fall into simply because people tend to gravitate toward what is familiar. If an employee at Kelly Services finds Camden falling into his comfort zone, he requests something of them: “Watch me, and yell at me if I’m doing it, because it’s probably not going to be apparent to me that I’m doing it.”

Raising consciousness about diversity of thought, and maintaining that consciousness, is a matter of constant communication and dialogue from all levels of the organization. Along with diversity of backgrounds and experiences comes a need for diversity in communication methods.

“The keyword is ‘tailoring,’” Camden says. “What I need in diversity can be different as you roll down the organization. Our managers have their own management meetings, their own group meetings, their own internal blogs and their own speaking opportunities.”

To keep the message front and center, Camden says employees need to hear it from their direct supervisor. A wide-ranging message from the CEO can help start the message cascading, but in order for it to take root, the managers who interact with your employees each day have to take an active role.

“It’s always constant communication, and a message from your own direct boss is often more powerful than a message from the distant CEO. That way, it keeps rolling down the organization.”

When you lay out your reasons for placing an emphasis on diversity, do so as simply and as clearly as possible. If you can relate the reasons in a convincing fashion, you stand a greater chance of getting everyone to not just buy in to the concept but also emphasize it when it comes time to hire or build a project team.

“It’s almost like ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build it, they’ll come,” Camden says. “If you look for it, if you make it a priority, you’re going to get it. But you have to make it a priority, and you have to communicate it frequently. You have to demonstrate that it’s a priority by the people you are directly hiring around you.

“If you are thinking about the challenges you are facing and how differences in backgrounds would help you meet those challenges and form your responses to those challenges, I think that, over time, what you are looking for in people would change. You need to take that time to step back and ask what set of experiences and backgrounds would be useful to where you are and where you are going.”

HOW TO REACH: Kelly Services Inc., www.kellyservices.com