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Sustainable Diversity: Amelia Ransom on breaking the diversity hiring stereotype

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Amelia Ransom is Sr. Director of Engagement & Diversity at Avalara. She also serves on the boards of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Seattle Goodwill, The Institute for Sustainable Diversity and Inclusion and Building Changes. She is also on the advisory board for the Seattle chapter of the Association of Latino Professionals in America (ALPFA).

Amelia, the diversity hiring quotas and principles are surrounded by controversy. What does diversity hiring mean to you?

I hate this term! I know what it’s supposed to mean—merit-based hiring that’s free of bias, but it rarely means that when used. People use this term to explain why they hired someone “different”. As in, “Suzie is a ‘diversity hire’. It becomes a shorthand for why we let someone into our club and sets up how that person is typically going to be treated within an organization—as a charity case or as less than qualified.

Giving equal chances to all candidates and hiring from a diverse talent pool is something else. It is more about educating the hiring managers on how to address unconscious bias in the hiring process. Eliminating candidates based on their ethnic-sounding names, appearance or gender shall not be part of the screening process. It is candidates’ skills, willingness to learn and curiosity that are important. If a recruiter always comes up with homogenous candidate profiles, obviously there is a problem as there is talent left behind.

Hiring based on merit is something all organisations are aiming to achieve. What are the best D&I practices of Avalara?

Honestly, I think it’s a willingness to be re-informed. When you’ve been raised, socialized and rewarded for a set of beliefs that you are now uncomfortable with, you may grapple with understanding and maybe even loving the people and places that gave you those beliefs. Example, if you were raised that women’s core value was not in the workplace and now you understand that women make great professionals, you may struggle with how to exist in your community or family with folks who still have those ideas. So, when people allow themselves to use data and information to help them release stereotypes and tropes, it’s not a small thing.

Breaking stereotypes is not an easy process and usually, there is a long way to go. It starts by acknowledging that there is a different point of view without openly challenging those who support that different point of view. Then, it becomes easier to understand and even appreciate new ideas and beliefs. In a working environment, it takes time to switch the mindset not only of the recruiters but also of the team members. Otherwise, introducing people who have diverse backgrounds and world views may not be appreciated by the team. Instead, it may result in tension and lost productivity. On the other hand, informing the team why diversity of thought may add value to the team and the organisation as a whole is likely to be well accepted.

Data-driven decisions and real-life examples are definitely capable of encouraging people to stay informed and be more open to change. Are there any D&I campaigns you are proud of?

Again, “D&I campaigns” aren’t something I’m centering my work in. I’m working hard to make diversity and inclusion part of our culture and a key part of how we do business. A campaign is a one-off. We’re doing our foundational work now, strategy and education and following that up with creating spaces via our Employee Resource Groups for employees to help shapeshift our organization for the long term. Our leaders are focusing on building strong teams, understanding how to engage them and leveraging diverse teams as a competitive business advantage. Diversity is not only having all groups represented, but it is also developing an environment where all these people will feel valued. The employee resource groups provide a forum where employees can speak up and be sure that their voices will be heard. Knowing that there are others to share their experiences with and ask for advise provides a different level of comfort and a sense of belonging to the team.

Building strong diverse teams is never easy, especially when the company is growing fast. What are the challenges associated with diversity hiring?

The belief that diversity in hiring is different than hiring the best talent. It’s not about hitting gender ratios or having people of various ages and skin colours on your team. Diversity in hiring starts with providing equal access to career opportunities to everyone. Using language that is not intentionally or unintentionally discouraging some candidates from applying is also important. Then, it is hiring the best talent out of all those candidates who applied for the job.

Do you use any diversity hiring tools or software? There are D&I experts who recommend the use of tools that hide the name, gender or the school the candidate graduated from to avoid bias. However, these practices are controversial as they assume that there is bias in place and don’t encourage the hiring managers to intentionally break diversity hiring stereotypes.

No. I am of two minds about these tools. On one hand, they’re helpful in minimizing some forms of bias. But they’re not teaching tools—and in all fairness, they’re not built to be—but when we don’t teach people how to “show their work” as my algebra teacher used to say, we miss an opportunity for people to learn how to minimize and eliminate bias not just in the hiring process but throughout the company.