When the Best Candidate Happens to Be Diverse

Companies seeking to boost executive diversity frequently will say that they want a top performer who “happens to be diverse”. The phrase gets tacked on as a kind of disclaimer. On the one hand, employers want to affirm equal opportunity for qualified candidates.

A lack of diversity in one’s leadership team suggests that opportunity may not be equal for all. So, a growing number of boards of directors and c-suite executives are attempting to level the playing field. They want to enjoy the competitive advantages that come from being more diverse. Consequently, they set up initiatives to hire more women and candidates of color.

That’s how we get to the tell, “happens to be more diverse”. It signals that diversity is indeed important to the hiring executive and to the company for which he or she works. That is not a bad thing. It signals an important shift.

Psychological studies have proven we register “other” race and gender as babies before we even can walk and talk. We become afraid of “strangers”. Our pulse quickens. In other words, we come hard-wired to discriminate.

Yet studies also show while our lizard brain discriminates, as our thinking brain kicks in, we check ourselves. Our pulse slows. The more educated we are, the better able we are to tame the unconscious bias within. Ultimately, to conquer bias against others who are different from us, we benefit from inviting them in. In doing so, they become one of us.

So Diversity is Awkward. Let’s Get Over It.

Some business leaders stick their heads in the sand, wishing conversations about diversity didn’t have to happen. But avoidance doesn’t work. Diversity is here to stay. So the question becomes how best to talk about diversity to ensure equal opportunity. Race, ethnicity and gender are so very . . . personal. It speaks to who we are.

Still, those of us who care about fairness find a way to talk about diversity. We do it when it isn’t easy and is often awkward. At times, conversations devolve into linguistic pretzels.


The following scene from the hit TV series Silicon Valley pretty much nails it as the team discusses engineering candidate Carla Walton.

Jared Dunn: You know what else excites me here? There’s a distinct over-representation of men in this company. Look around. I think it would behoove us to prioritize hiring a woman.

Bertram Gilfoyle: I disagree O.J. We should hire the best person for the job. Period.

Dinesh Chugtai: And Carla is one of the best.

Jared Dunn: Right. Let me rephrase. I think having a woman in the company is important, but hiring someone only because they’re a woman is bad. I’d never compromise Pied Piper.

Richard Hendriks: Okay. But, just to be clear, our top priority is to hire the most qualified person available, right?

Jared Dunn: Of course.

Dinesh Chugtai: But it would be better if that someone was a woman, even if the woman part of that statement is irrelevant?

Jared Dunn: Exactly. It’s like we’re the Beatles and now we just need a Yoko.

Dinesh Chugtai: That’s the worst example he could have used.


Have you ever struggled with how best to talk about diversity or witnessed others struggle with it? Any instructive or entertaining anecdotes?

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