(Illustration by Fizkes/iStock by Getty Images)

Over the course of this year, the trajectory of corporate diversity-and-inclusion efforts has been particularly under a spotlight. Protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing prompted many organizations to commit publicly to more equity-conscious efforts, while the remote-working conditions brought on by the pandemic made more starkly evident the economic and social disparity among different communities. So how can employers, amid these conditions and grappling with an ever-changing work environment, successfully recruit diverse candidates­–and keep them?

Executives from across multiple sectors convened recently to talk about these issues in a From Day One webinar, moderated by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman, titled “Diversity Hiring: Innovative Ways for Companies to Meet Their Goals.”

Chief among the key factors for success, the panelists agreed, are out-of-the-box thinking, transparency, follow-through and, in actuality, listening to diverse voices in the first place.

“After a lot of the social unrest and really just emotional exhaustion from a lot of the employees here, we began to get together and really have candid conversations about, What are pillars? What do we really want?,” said Brittany King-Offord, a lead talent-acquisition manager at AT&T.

“What do we want people to buy into and, currently as a corporation, then how can we sit back and create the branding around it to where we can engage potential candidates [who] want to believe that AT&T is not just talking the talk, but we’re also walking the walk?,” said King-Offord.

“So we actually enhanced one of our programs called AT&T Believes, where we are going back into the communities and really serving–not just with doing basic community service,” she said. “We’re also looking at, How do we engage with upskilling opportunities and also other education opportunities to engage potential candidates ... to create a pipeline that makes sense–so they can reap the benefits of the conversations that we’re having internally?”

The value of a talent-development pipeline, particularly in letting candidates know what jobs exist and encouraging them to apply, was repeatedly touched upon throughout the webinar.

“Things that we’ve seen a lot of organizations starting to adopt: One, to go beyond just the traditional diversity job boards,” said Leah Daniels, SVP of strategy at Appcast, a developer of programmatic job-advertising technology. “That’s an unfortunate box-checking exercise that we have seen,” she said, since “there are low volumes of people engaging on those sites.” She recommends looking for candidates on a much broader level. Her second recommendation was to reach out to many different kinds of colleges. “Just because they’re not a historically black college does not mean that they don’t have variety of great candidates and opportunities,” Daniels said.

From Day One's panelists, clockwise from upper left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Yvonne Soto of the New York City Department of Education, Leah Daniels of Appcast, Chad Nico Hiu of the YMCA of the USA, Brittany King-Offord of AT&T, and Monique Carswell of the Walmart Foundation (Image by From Day One)

Daniels offered a third piece of advice: “Taking a really hard look at your job descriptions and requirements and asking, Are you creating barriers to diversity unintentionally? Does this position really require a four-year degree or master’s degree? Are we just asking for that because we can?,” she said. “And so really making sure you’re reaching a diverse audience and you’re not asking them to opt out. One of the things we know is that women and people of color, particularly, are more likely to try to match all the requirements in your job description, where oftentimes white men will not. They will say, ‘close enough,’ and they’ll still apply for your job. So if you’ve created the bar too high, you’ve actually created an opportunity for candidates to take themselves out of contention–without even the need to do it. So really making sure that you are asking for things that are real, as opposed to a wish list.”

Follow-through is just as important. Candidates need to see evidence of companies truly enacting their pledges and policies regarding diversity and inclusion, with potential employees wanting to “see performatively” that organizations are living up to their commitments, according to Chad Nico Hiu, senior director of diversity and inclusion at YMCA of the USA.

Before reaching out to candidates, individual leaders should look inward. “We sometimes, as leaders in this area, or trying to be leaders in this area, jump to the organizational change before we do the individual work,” he said. “What is our own bias? What is our own learning, where are our own blind spots, how does that show up in the policies we proposed or the leadership we try to embody in the spaces we aim to create?”

Organizations need to provide solid evidence that they've got what job candidates are looking for. Earlier in the year, Hiu said, “Everyone was looking for three words in somebody’s statement: Did you have Black Lives Matter? And if you didn’t, you got nailed. Very rarely did we see, initially, the words address systemic racism, foster anti-oppressive tactics, and ensure that all people feel safe and welcome. The tactics to the performative aspect of this work sometimes get glossed over.”

Hiu quoted a favorite saying of a colleague: “How do we make this a movement, not a moment?" He continued: “That’s a part of what I think we all are trying to talk about in diversity. There’s a movement here that, if we don’t lose it, can change the makeup of every one of our sectors, every one of our companies, every one of our neighborhoods, if we hold onto it and systematize it while people are still paying attention.”

He added: “There’s a need to ask the candidates that we keep, What has made you stay?, instead of assuming. There’s a need to make sure that employee resource groups or business resource groups are tapped into deciding how we talk about them.”

Yvonne Soto, executive director of organizational development and effectiveness for the New York City Department of Education, said the department had already made concrete strides and demonstrably reached its diversity-and-inclusion goals, with over 50% of new teachers this year–for the first time–identifying as people of color. But she too stressed the necessity to be vigilant and continue showing evidence of the department’s follow-through to candidates, staff members, and the wider community.

“One of the points that I want to make is not grandstanding or having platitudes around pledges, but how can we ensure that that’s embedded into the fabric of what we do through our priorities and core values–and really centering the voices of people of color within our organization to inform our decisions as we move forward?” Soto said. “So as we think about returning to work and what that looks like–and creating return-to-work guidance and resources, how can we lead with inclusivity and empathy? How can we acknowledge that there has been disproportionality to our black colleagues and Asian colleagues across the system?” she asked, emphasizing the need to ensure “that they play a role and reviewing our resources around structured interviewing, diversity, recruitment, toolkits, etc., to ensure that we are going beyond just the mission and vision, but also ensuring that employee voice is centered in the conversation.”

And while proactivity, innovation and concrete achievement are imperative, so too is transparency, which is needed in order to maintain that drive, said Monique Carswell, head of associate and customer engagement at the Walmart Foundation. “When you make these announcements and commitments, you have to continue to let people know where you are on that journey. So here’s where we are; here’s how we’re getting there,” Carswell said, which should apply both internally and externally. At Walmart, “we’ve moved from an annual diversity report to mid-year. So how can we continue to make improvements and let people know where we are at the same time?,” she said, recommending “constant communication and feedback flow.”

She added: “In terms of our current associates, and even the pipeline of folks who are looking to work for us, there’s this sense of urgency. So you want to act swiftly, you want to come out big, you want to come out strong, but at the same time, you have to have this steady momentum. So do you have the actual tools in place internally?” Maintaining consistent, effective procedures can be “a huge hurdle, depending on the size of your organization,” she said, especially given variations in “where everybody is coming from and where they’re at on that journey. So you do have to have a little bit of grace around that and continue to  question yourselves and your actions.”

Editor's note: You can watch a video of the webinar here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Sheila Flynn is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.