Management needs diversity. And sometimes the only way to achieve that is to temporarily use quotas to add some variety to the line-up

A recent report by the Treasury Committee in the UK suggested that the financial crisis could have been avoided if more women had been in senior positions within banks and able to challenge ‘group think’. It has re-opened the controversial debate about whether or not there should be quotas to improve diversity at the top of organisations.

Whilst my instinct goes against quotas, it is based on a flawed assumption.

When challenging the idea of quotas, the typical comment goes along the lines “It should be about choosing the best person for the job, regardless of gender, colour or race”. A reasonable sounding argument. And who wants to be told they only got the job because they’re required to meet a quota? But how many positions are normally filled by the best possible person for the job, instead of as a result of networks and friendships?

Question: When recruiting someone for a position, do you:

  1. Conduct an exhaustive nationwide, if not global, search?
  2. Advertise the post and select from a limited group who applied for the position?
  3. Use your network and choose someone who comes recommended?

Question: Have you ever had a job where you didn’t originally apply for the advertised position? Where someone who knew your skills and capabilities made a suggestion or referred you in?

Is Gordon Brown the best possible person to be prime minister in the UK right now? Maybe. Maybe not. He wasn’t elected, either to be leader of his party or to be prime minister of the UK. He struck a deal with his friend/associate when they decided, out of the two of them, Tony Blair had a better chance of leading the Labour party to an election victory in 1997. That deal involved guaranteeing that Gordon would succeed Tony at some point. No matter if someone else came along who might have been a better fit, they had a deal. Unusual behaviour? I doubt that.

Any tech gadget company that attempts to sell to women by releasing pink versions of their low-end products is unlikely to be being run by a woman. Best person in the job? Depends on what percentage of sales involve women making the purchasing decision. (Hint: Research suggests, in most areas of life, women tend to be heavily influential in purchasing decisions.)

When we argue against quotas we wrongly assume that somehow the best possible person is already in a job, when that is highly unlikely. I’ve written about this before, back in June 2008: Designing Teams.

The risk when the management of an organisation – be it a commercial entity or a government – does not reflect the diversity of the people it represents, influences or wants to sell to, is that poor decisions will be made. Either through corruption – protecting self-interests; ignorance or incompetence – simply not knowing what people want or need because you aren’t like them. You can get away with it as long as your competition makes the same mistakes, or until the system collapses… but don’t say you have the best person in the job.


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Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. I think the **and able to challenge groupthink** is the most important part of this. Disagreeing with someone in a position of authority is a daunting prospect for anyone, and even more so if the person who disagrees knows that they are in a minority and will be speaking up entirely on their own.

    So you could tell the ‘diverse’ individuals that they are there to meet a quota… but we need to know whether it’s a “the government say we must have a more diverse workforce; you are here on sufferance,” quota, or a genuine “we seriously want to hear a different viewpoint” quota.

  2. Absolutely. Making up the numbers will not change the status quo, it will just create conflict for all if it isn’t positioned correctly. Ultimately, individuals can behave just like institutions – few relish change. I love that last sentence of yours – and it’s the question that needs to be asked.

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