Diversity Hiring, Employer

“Best Qualified for the Job” and Other Racist Myths

This summer I attended a dinner party where the discussion inevitably moved to the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-black racism.  The crowd was a group of successful, 30- and forty-somethings that I would call well-educated, socio-economically and culturally diverse.  So I was surprised (and yet not) at some of the common myths that perpetuate systemic racism.

You’ve probably heard it, the statement is something along the lines of “I don’t care what colour your skin, whether you’re gay or straight, man or woman, I think the job should go to the best qualified person.”

It got me to thinking; this statement is most often made as an objection to Equal Opportunity Employment Equity mandates (or for you guys in the US, Affirmative Action hiring) that range from targeting specific minorities to actually setting hiring quotas.

What’s really interesting is that the people who make these statements don’t consider themselves racist (or ableist or misogynistic). As a matter of fact, they think they’re being decidedly anti-racist by saying this…promoting the idea of equal treatment for all candidates. While that doesn’t sound awful, it ignores obvious disparities in the experiences of candidates from different backgrounds.

As with most of the contributing factors to systemic racism, it’s an ignorance of the roots of the system and how it was created, or what we call privilege, not malicious or deliberate intent that makes racism so pervasive.

Even in 2020.

And yes, even here in Canada.

So let’s dig in. Why is this such a racist thought?

Let’s look at the anatomy of a job description, the measure by which we determine who is “best qualified”. Usually there’s a brief company profile, a high level description of the objectives of the job, followed by an exhaustive list of the deliverables or functions. All of this is self-explanatory and rather benign.

Then we get into the bottom portion: Requirements.

Sometimes dressed up as “Key Qualifications”, “What you bring”, or “Factors for Success”.

It’s not the title of this section that’s so insidious, it’s the content. Listed here are educational requirements, domain experience, number of years in a specific position.

We’re measuring a person’s ability to do the job based on a one-directional, linear “experience” that is typical of a domestic-born, middle income bracket, suburbanite, white person.

Elementary school. High School. University. X number of years in particular Field of Study showing progression (though not so much tenure as to stagnate, and not so much movement as to indicate instability.)

These “requirements” surmise that the only means to acquire the necessary skills for this job are gained through this one pathway, when in reality there are countless combinations that could yield the same (or perhaps even more desirable…different) skills that would compliment your team.

For example, if your team has the same background, experience, education, etc. they’re more likely to suffer from GroupThink and provide one-dimensional solutions to the same problems.  It’s when we promote healthy conflict and different perspectives that we can overcome all challenges. It’s the same premise behind cross functional teams in Lean and Agile organizations. Variety is the spice of life!!

To take this further, this also means that diversity hiring can’t come from a place of “taking a chance” on this person who doesn’t have the conventional resume.  Rather it requires a deliberate mandate to seek out people with different experiences so that they intentionally CONTRAST with the status quo.

In order to achieve that end, you can’t use the same old templates for job descriptions. They’re self-eliminating. There are people who will remove themselves from consideration for not having such a profile.
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Systemic racism means that even in the absence of racist people, black, indigenous and persons of colour are at a disadvantage.

The way we write job descriptions is one of those conventions that disadvantages visible minorities.

So what do we do about it?

One recommendation is to remove Requirements altogether.

That’s a pretty bold thing to do.  And yet it eliminates the bias that comes from thinking that you know what is the perfect combination of experiences that will yield the right fit for this job.

Instead, let candidates evaluate the job itself and tell US why they’ll succeed.

Most companies don’t do this because of a fear that they’ll be inundated with so many “unqualified” applicants that it will make finding the right person even more difficult. This fear persists throughout the entire hiring process and makes it so that employers are trying to find reasons to eliminate candidates, instead of hire them.

This means that interviewers tend to be tougher on black candidates (as well as women and persons with disabilities) as if incredulous that the person can do what they claim. They are less forgiving of deviations from the “normal” experience. (i.e. explaining gaps in employment, or positions that seemed off course). These are things that truly do not impact a person’s ability to perform and yet, for minorities, can issue a fatal blow to their candidacy.

Thus the reason why “best qualified for the job” is nonsense. It limits your productive capacities as an organization, kills your employer brand, and injures our fellow Canadians and newcomers alike.

I’ve written before about structuring your process to find a person’s value proposition instead of running the gauntlet of Requirements.  If you need help evaluating your process, writing job descriptions that attract the widest possible audience, or even starting Diversity and Inclusion programs, give us a call.



Shannon Roach

Shannon has spent the last decade working to restore human connection to the forefront of hiring. She writes about the realities, humour, and heartbreak of engaging talent and standing out in this age of soundbites. Playing different roles as businesswoman, wife, mother, and advocate, Shannon hopes the future leaves room for us to be our whole selves, our best selves, at work.