Downturn impacts hiring and workforce diversity programs

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When it comes to hiring, companies tend to look at diversity in one of two ways: as an integral part of their financial success or as, simply, "the right thing to do."

In a strong economy, the way a company views diversity may not matter. Not so during and after a recession, when job openings are hard to come by and the stakes for new hires are high. In companies that view diversity as a moral obligation rather than a business advantage, experts agree, diversity hiring has fallen by the wayside.

"Cost-benefit is king in this economy," said Scott Erker, senior vice president at Pittsburgh-based talent management and hiring firm Development Dimensions International. "Only if diversity is seen as central to your business strategy, and that there are benefits to the cost, will companies hire for diversity no matter what."

But whatever financial constraints they have, companies that choose to sacrifice their diversity hiring programs, said Chase Patterson, president of Corporate Diversity Associates in Downtown, can greatly lose out.

When businesses come to him unsure about whether they should implement diversity hiring programs, he makes arguments based in business and finances.

"It's the right thing to do, but it's more than that. When you have a diverse, culturally inclusive workforce, where folks are allowed to share their opinions, you get better business products," Mr. Patterson said. "You're better equipped to serve a diverse client population."

Stereotypes about qualifications of minority applicants can lead companies to believe that diversity means sacrificing other ideals, said Esther Bush, the president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

Research, however, has consistently supported Mr. Patterson's arguments for diverse hiring. An April 2009 study in the American Sociological Review found that workplace diversity is among the best predictors of a business's financial success: high profitability, revenue and number of customers. More racially diverse firms, the study found, tended to do better than more homogenous competitors.

In difficult economic times, according to a 2000 study by Stanford University professors, diversity can actually be more beneficial to companies, since the smaller, more decentralized workplace that is often the result of cutbacks can benefit more noticeably from diverse viewpoints.

Despite clear advantages, companies often turn to diversity hiring programs when they need to make cuts.

"It takes more time and more money," explained Michelle McKee, a recruiting consultant at Newton Consulting in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Erker recommends that businesses create a diversity officer position within the company, somebody who can demonstrate an organization's commitment and, importantly, ensure that diversity programs are not on the chopping block in a bad economy.

One of the biggest setbacks to diversity hiring can be finding candidates. Robinson-based Bayer Corp. has developed an online program where prospective hires can enter their qualifications and are taken to "microsites" catering, for example, to minorities or veterans.

"We're trying to create a broader candidate pool," said Joe Oestreicher, the company's director of recruiting, of the microsite program, which went live in July.

But at companies where such initiatives may not be possible, Ms. Bush said, fixes can be much smaller-scale and less high-tech.

Many highly qualified candidates from nontraditional backgrounds -- such as minorities or veterans -- are passed over by traditional hiring practices. Ms. Bush suggested that businesses put ads in newspapers that cater to the black community as well as more mainstream publications, and that they take their recruiting initiatives at universities to historically black fraternities and sororities.

"Don't tell me 'no blacks applied,' " Ms. Bush said. "It's not a good enough excuse. It's quite lame. All you have to do is go one extra step."

Even companies that are not able to hire any new talent because of the economy, Mr. Patterson stressed, can make diversity a business priority through seminars and diversity education.

"You can have an all-white workforce that still understands and respects the importance of diversity," he said. "When you eventually are able to hire new talent, your staff will be prepared to work together."

The extra effort, Ms. Bush said, is worth it. "You'll be surprised by the kind of talent you're missing."


Molly Hensley-Clancy: or 412-263-1410.


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