Pinterest Produces Amazing Diversity Results … Using Proactive Targeted Referrals

By focusing on one type of diversity referral program, within six weeks a firm can dramatically turn around its diversity recruiting … to the point of, for engineering jobs, “a 55-fold increase in the percentage of candidates from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds” and a “24 percent increase in women applicants.”

Well, these dramatic results were recently achieved at the Internet firm Pinterest using a program that anyone can copy. I call the approach “proactive targeted diversity referrals” because it proactively prompts employees to make referrals in the targeted area. Rather than using software, this simple referral approach uses the talent knowledge of your best employees to find diverse talent.

Although Powerful, Referrals Are Seldom Used For Diversity Recruiting

Although employee referrals are routinely the No. 1 source for hiring volume and for quality of hire, I’ve yet to find a single large corporation where referrals were the No. 1 source for diversity hires. I have been an advocate of diversity referrals for decades, but I have unfortunately found that that in diversity, recruiting and HR are so risk-averse that only a handful of firms have implemented a data-driven approach to diversity. Perhaps these amazing Pinterest results will reduce any resistance to targeting referrals on diversity.

The Top 10 Reasons Why Proactive Targeted Diversity Referrals Are Superior

A proactively targeted diversity referral program produces superior results compared to the dismal results produced by most diversity referral efforts for 10 basic reasons. Which are:

  1. Being proactive is critical — most referral programs are passive, in that they wait for employees to take action. A superior approach is being proactive, which means proactively approaching individual employees and asking for their help in making diversity referrals. Proactively approaching only a few employees makes a major difference because the individuals being contacted feel special. Under the proactive approach, the messaging must also be different, in that they can’t be canned uniform messages that are shotgunned to all employees, because eventually all spammed messages are ignored. The most effective proactive approaches occur in person but personalized electronic messages that are clearly sent to only a select few target employees can also be effective.
  2. Diversity targets are clearly defined — most referral programs have no special emphasis on targeting diverse individuals beyond providing a “diversity photograph” in their information materials. By declaring diversity as a major focus and goal, your employees may finally realize its importance. If you also specify the targeted diversity sub-groups (i.e. STEM women) and the specific jobs in which you need diversity (i.e. engineers and managers), your employees will be able to focus their referrals in your target areas. Because the best diversity hires “ork across the street at your competitors, make employees aware of the specific firms that you’re diversity recruiting effort is targeting.
  3. The employee involvement builds ownership — under most standard diversity referral efforts, the employee is merely asked to share their contact lists, and then they are done. In direct contrast, under the targeted approach contact lists are never requested. Instead, the individual is asked to spend time thinking of all the perfect candidates they know. By adding the brain work of finding and assessing the best diversity targets, you get better quality prospects than any contact mining software could. Also by increasing the employee’s involvement, you get a corresponding increase in the employee’s long-term ownership of the diversity goal.
  4. Referrals are assigned to employees — most referral programs operate on a volunteer basis, and, as a result, the employee who is targeting a potential referral may not be the best one to sell them. A targeted approach uses data to identify which employees are most likely to have the required diversity contacts and selling the building. Then these targeted employees (i.e. individuals or small groups) are then asked or formally assigned the role of building a relationship and making a referral in the targeted diversity area.
  5. Employee messaging contains these critical elements — rather than a standardized broadcast message that most will ignore, the message that you send these selected target employees must be personalized. Personalization lets the employee know that they have been specifically selected by management to play a critical recruiting role. The initial message should specifically ask for their help and it must also explain why their role is so essential. This role explanation might include the fact that data shows that employees are best able to identify quality diversity contacts and that because they are approaching their peers, they have a better chance as an equal of convincing the target to apply. Adding a program deadline to the message increases the sense of urgency and competition, both of which make it more likely that the goal will be met.
  6. Use “memory retrieval cues” — when you proactively approach an employee and ask them to name their diversity contacts, they almost universally come up blank. But if you use “memory retrieval cues,” under what is known as a “Give me 5” approach (championed by myself and Google) you get completely different results. So instead, ask narrow brain stimulating questions that cover specific characteristics like “Name the best diversity engineer who you knew in college” or “Name the best woman manager you ever worked with?” or “Who’s the best female cyber security engineer you know working at Apple? By providing psychological cues, you force the individual to think and focus in a very specific area, and as a result, your odds of getting a great referral increased dramatically.
  7. A referral toolkit educates the employee — the reality is that most employees, especially technical employees, who attempt to make referrals are not very good at finding and making referrals. Therefore, educate your employees on the best approaches by providing them with a “referral toolkit”. Whirlpool and DaVita have both successfully used employee education toolkits. The toolkit can include the most effective Internet sites and conferences for identifying diversity referral targets and the best approaches for building relationships. The referral toolkit should also include the key selling points of your firm, frequently asked questions, common referral problems, and examples of effective social media profiles and blogs.
  8. The results are tracked — most referral programs have no accountability, even though it is a key component for success and ownership. So under the diversity referral approach, the target employees and their managers must understand that their results will be tracked and widely distributed (adding competition and a little embarrassment). Making diversity referral hires as part of the standard performance appraisal and promotion criteria will also have a significant positive impact. Track on LinkedIn the top diversity candidates who were rejected by your hiring managers in order to find out if they turned out to be wildly successful at another firm.
  9. Educate hiring managers on diversity hiring barriers — standard referral programs and diversity referral programs can both fail because of the common mistakes made by hiring managers and interviewers. Therefore, you must educate those individuals on common failure points including “hidden biases” and the biases that can occur when “hiring for fit.” Also, warn them about the overemphasis on factors that often unnecessarily reject diversity candidates, such as requiring excessive years of experience and advanced degrees, the need for formal titles, assessment based on body language, and making hiring decisions too early based on first impressions.
  10. Rewards can play a role — it’s not necessary to offer cash rewards for successful referrals (Pinterest didn’t) because as few as 24 percent of employees refer for the money. Instead, the motivation should be hiring the very best “for the good of the team” because your colleagues deserve to work alongside the very best. Recognition, however, is an important motivator, so the referring employees and their managers should know that they will be openly recognized by executives for their diversity referral success. If you’re going to use diversity rewards, offer a small bonus for simply providing the name of a qualified diverse individual. An adding a “kick-up bonus” (above to the standard bonus) for each diversity hire is also an approach that has been used by Intel and Glowforge. Monetary bonuses work not because of the money itself, but because offering extra money reveals the depth of the company’s commitment to diversity referrals.

Supplement the Referral Program With Other Diversity Hiring Approaches

If you want to supplement your referral efforts, there are other things you can do to increase diversity hiring.

  • Business case — in order to get enough resources to operate diversity referrals, work with the CFO’s office to build a strong business case, based on the many positive business impacts that result when you increase diversity.
  • Data-driven — the foundation of any program should be a shift to an approach that uses data to make all diversity program choices (even the normally data-driven Google makes diversity recruiting decisions based on emotion).
  • Don’t “lump” — don’t recruit all diversity group members as if they were part of a homogeneous group (because they are not).
  • Candidate research — use candidate research to find out the job search process of your diverse targets, what your targets look for in a job, where they look and when they look.
  • Candidate slate — set a rule requiring, at least, one diversity candidate on every interview slate.
  • Referral cards — provide referral cards to your target employees so they can hand them to diverse candidates when they physically meet them. Also, offer employees electronic referral cards.
  • Expand eligibility — expand referral eligibility to managers, executives, and “friends of the firm” (including employee family members, former employees, part-timers, and vendors).
  • College hires diversity — add a college diversity referral component because college students are among the most connected of any population group.
  • Obscure names — consider hiding candidate names and non-predictor factors on resumes during the initial screening.
  • A magnet program — develop a “magnet” diversity hire approach where you proactively seek out the most visible and influential diverse people in your industry. Then hire them for the capabilities but also because their hiring will send a powerful message throughout the industry that will eventually attract other top-quality diverse and non-diverse hires.

Final Thoughts

At corporations in every industry, most diversity programs routinely fail to reach their recruiting goals. I find that this failure is primary because of four factors, 1) relying on emotion rather than data; 2) being risk adverse; 3) not using assigned referrals; and 4) over focusing on EEOC goals rather than improving business results because of increased diversity in key jobs.

A data-driven approach will show that almost any variation of referral program will produce the best results, simply because they rely on the superior capability of your employees to make contacts, build relationships, and sell the firm. It’s time for recruiting leaders to stop living in the past when it was assumed that referrals would result in a negative diversity impact (the opposite is now true). And now the 55-fold improvement in results experienced at Pinterest should remove any final barriers to implementing a proactively targeted diversity referral effort at your corporation.

Special thanks to my research assistant Kimberly Do for her contribution to this article.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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