Joe Gerstandt on Diversity and Inclusion Practices in Recruiting and Hiring

July 12, 2019 at 8:00 am

Joe Gerstandt

Joe Gerstandt is an HR consultant who helps companies incorporate diversity and inclusion practices into their cultures in an authentic and natural way. He also speaks at industry conferences and is the co-author of Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. We recently spoke with Joe about how D&I practices impact recruiting and hiring.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did a white man get into the diversity and inclusion business?

Well, it was not a very direct route for sure. Thirty years ago, I would have rolled my eyes I what I do for a living today. A whole lot of change had to happen for me to get from where I started as an adult to where I am today.

I was very homophobic earlier in my life. I have thought and behaved in racist and sexist ways, so I had a lot of work that I needed to do on myself before I could see this work as I see it today. I have very strong beliefs about this work today, but I approach it with the understanding that people are at a lot of different places with this set of issues, because I have been at a lot of different places.

It can be easy to demonize the folks that don’t “get it,” and it even feels good — and I know this because I have done it — but it is not at all useful. It actually reinforces some of the dynamics that we are working and fighting against. We have to do this work in effective ways, and honesty and acceptance are some of the most effective things we have access to.

I got into this work largely by bumping into people who were different from me, people who accepted me for who I was and where I was at the time, but also challenged my thinking in different ways. People shared their stories with me and allowed me to learn from their experiences. People allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them. I came to see society and culture and community differently, which changed my role and responsibility. Eventually, I came to understand that I did not have any other choice than to do this work.

Your approach to diversity and inclusion seems radically different from the mainstream. Has this made it harder or easier to engage company leaders with your message?

It has not made it harder. I think that the way I approach this work resonates with leaders, in that I am good at getting leaders who do not believe this set of issues has anything to do with them to be excited about and engaged in this work. The way that I approach it and frame it has a lot to do with that. Some of my peers in D&I work don’t get me, but this is a body of work where regardless of how you approach it, some people are going to think you are too radical and some are going to think you are not radical enough. The question that matters to me continues to be, “Am I being effective?”

What would you say to someone who is skeptical of the need for a focus on diversity and inclusion?

I would tell them to let go of their social media-informed, hyper-politicized idea of what D&I is. Literally, diversity means different — you can look it up in the dictionary. Difference is one of the universal aspects of the human experience. There are very few things we can say that are true of all human beings, one of them is that we are all in some way different. There is no human experience, no human interaction, relationship, communication that does not contain difference.

Difference also has consequences. If we are to minimize the negative consequences and maximize the positive consequences, we have to do stuff. We might call that stuff the practice of inclusion. This is all just very basic to humans being with other humans. The same dynamics show up in marriages, families, neighborhoods, and the workplace. The fact that we need to invest energy convincing leaders of human beings that there is a “business case for diversity,” is, in my opinion, a scathing indictment on the state of what we call leadership.

How are commonalities just as important as differences when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

We are, in some way, all different. We are also, in some way, all the same. Difference and commonality are two bedrock things that we all share. If you pick two random human beings from anywhere on this planet, they are going to share difference and they are going to share commonality. Difference and commonality are the primary materials of which all relationships and communities are built. If those relationships and communities are going to be healthy, then we have to have a healthy relationship with both difference and commonality — if we lean too heavily in one direction, we invite pathology in.

In your opinion, what is the right department to deal with D&I, if not HR?

It’s too big and broad for a department, especially a department as overstretched and under-resourced as HR. It needs to be woven into everything that an organization does and is. A lot of my focus is on embedding it into everything that an organization does in the name of management or leadership. The behaviors and practices of supervisors, for instance, are among the biggest levers toward changing the employee experience.

How can you measure the positive impact of D&I principles when they are implemented well in a company?

This may be a frustrating answer, but it really depends on what D&I mean to a company. A lot of organizations struggle to measure impact, and they blame that on the work (it’s too touchy-feely, it’s too intangible, etc.), but it’s their own fault. If as an organization you say that inclusion is really important, as more and more organizations are saying, but there is no clear and concise definition anywhere of what inclusion means, then everything, including measurement, is going to be a lot trickier.

It’s not exciting, sexy, or simple work, but forming clear and concise definitions is where this work begins. Language is the first intervention; clear and concise definitions are the first evidence of actual commitment. And almost no organizations have clear and concise definitions today. Everyone talks about inclusion, yet everyone is talking about something a little bit different.

If leaders can, to the best of their ability, put some language around the experiential outcome of being fully included in their organization, then they can take that definition to their employees and ask them if that language reflects their experience. The answer to that question is an incredibly valuable metric. If the experience of being included is the product that we are trying to deliver, we should be able to speak to its characteristics, as we do with any other product. Until we can do that, measurement is going to be a lot harder than it needs to be.

How can talent assessments be effective in making more diverse hires?

I think we greatly overestimate our ability to measure “talent.” I am more interested in reducing and removing as much bias as possible from our systems, tools, and processes, and then prioritizing people who are willing and able to align with the values of an organization.

Any final comments?

Be good to each other.

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