5 tips for hiring a diverse workforce

Opinion, Business, Money, NakedLaw

Over the past few years, I’ve personally interviewed scores of candidates and hired more than a dozen employees for my civil litigation and family law firm, The Bloom Firm. As a civil rights lawyer representing employees suing for sex, race, sexual orientation, disability and other forms of discrimination for decades, I’ve thought carefully about how to go about all of this the right way. Of course I want to comply with employment laws; but much more than that, I want to be fair and cast a wide net while hiring and retaining a diverse workforce where everyone is judged on merit alone.

What’s the best way to ensure an inclusive workforce? Here are my top five tips.

1. Understand that diversity is key to your business’ success

Employers: inclusiveness is not just a social justice issue, it’s a key way to boost your bottom line.

In study after study, companies do better in the marketplace when they have diverse workforces. Global companies with at least one female board member have significantly greater equity value, lower debt ratios and better growth, according to a Credit Suisse study of more than 2000 companies. Gender-diverse retail and hospitality companies have as much as 19 percent higher net profits. Ethnically diverse financial trading companies are significantly more accurate than their all-white counterparts. Racially mixed scientific and academic teams get more accurate results.

Why? People work harder, are more creative and more diligent working within a diverse group. Results improve because more and different perspectives have been added to the mix and incorporated into the final product.

As I’ve been growing my law firm, I’ve kept in mind the old precept that if both of us think exactly alike, one of us is unnecessary. As the owner, I’m not going anywhere, so I’d rather bring in people with different backgrounds and experiences who may have ideas I had not considered. People who may challenge me, and the rest of the team, or at least come at problems from a new angle.

Not incidentally, you may also get the benefit of a multilingual team. I’m proud to say mine is fluent in Albanian, Creole, English, Farsi, French, Hebrew, Sinhala, Spanish and Tagalog. In Los Angeles and New York, where we practice, we can reach a much broader client base than firms without people who speak these languages.

2. Recognize your implicit biases

Disturbingly, we still live in a culture where, all things being equal, Emily and Chad are more likely to get the job than Renisha or Jamal. It’s up to each of us to remedy that and to consider diversity in every hiring decision we make.

As I wrote about extensively in my book “Suspicion Nation,” most of us think we are egalitarian. Yet clever, cheat-proof tests developed by Harvard University researchers and taken by millions of people show that most of us harbor deep-seated, unconscious biases against people of color. The vast majority of white people, for example, test for moderate or severe racial bias against African Americans, and so do 50 percent of African Americans – that is, they show implicit biases against members of their own race. Realizing we have a problem is the first step to overcoming it.

Most of us grew up in de facto segregated neighborhoods and attended de facto segregated schools, and we’re more comfortable with people like us. This is why I avoid hiring by asking friends or family if they know anyone, and instead post ads on job sites like Craigslist. Reaching out to a broad audience is more inclusive.

3. Write a very specific job post, and keep an open mind

You’re looking for an employee to fill a very particular position. Spell out in your ad exactly what you want: Level of education, professional experience and skill level, and be clear about job duties, hours and compensation.

And then be prepared to look at a standout candidate who may not fit exactly what you had in mind. Several times I’ve had candidates who didn’t quite match the profile I was looking for but who persuaded me they could do the job. I hired them, and they’ve become valued members of my team. My favorite cover letter began, “My resume sucks, but I don’t.” This young woman had had some troubles that caused her to wait tables for much of her work life. I was moved by her ability to confront her challenges honestly upfront.

Not everyone has had a straight-line path to success. But those who have been exceptionally challenged with tough circumstances, and overcome them with resilience, may be your most trustworthy and loyal workers. Give those candidates a second look.

4. Pay a living wage for every job

Only young people from affluent families (overwhelmingly white) can afford to work as unpaid interns. This is unfair to smart, hardworking candidates from poor or middle class families. For this reason, The Bloom Firm doesn’t use any unpaid interns.

Though it may be tempting to simply pay minimum wage for entry level jobs, learn what a living wage is for your community and make that your minimum. This will allow single parents and people without trust funds to work for you and boost your diversity.

5. Don’t say stupid things in the job interview. Or in your workplace. Or in your life.

If you would like to do the right thing and comply with the law, avoid any discussion or interview questions about gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, disability, medical conditions, age, marital status, religion or political party during job interviews.

When I’ve mentioned to friends that I’m hiring, some have asked: “Would you prefer a male or female assistant?” Nope, don’t ask that. Don’t think that. You want the best candidate, regardless of gender.

Other prohibited interview questions: “Are you married?” “Do you have kids?”  “Where are you from?” “Are you religious?” Sometimes applicants volunteer information: Several told me they are single moms, another that he was an Orthodox Jew. Interesting, but do your best to steer the conversation back to the position. Stick with questions about their educational and work history and why they believe they should get the job. That’s all that really matters anyway.

It’s 2015. If you don’t have an inclusive workforce, your competitors are probably beating you in the marketplace. Consider talking with an employment/labor lawyer to make sure your policies are up to snuff. For quick questions, you can speak to a highly reviewed employment/labor lawyer on the phone in minutes, with the $39 Avvo Advisor service. Share your questions or a photo of your contracts on the Avvo Advisor app and an attorney will call you back within 15 minutes to discuss in real-time.

This adage is certainly true in my law firm: our diversity is our strength.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.