What Ketchup Can Teach Us About Diversity in the Workplace

Imagine you’re at a friend’s house and asked to grab some ketchup from the kitchen. You open the fridge, but alas, no ketchup. Chances are your immediate reaction is that your friend is out of ketchup. That is, until your friend instructs you to look in the cupboard instead. Confused, you open the cupboard to find a perfectly good bottle of Heinz waiting for you.

Both you and your friend stare at each other with squinted eyes in a moment of complete bewilderment. I don’t even know who you are anymore.

Ok, perhaps that got a tad hyperbolic at the end, but it’s a helpful illustration about the importance of thought diversity in the workplace.

(For the record, I’m a ketchup in the cupboard person. I realize this is almost as offensive as believing there is a time and place for pineapple on pizza, and I sincerely apologize for any triggering these beliefs may cause.)

The moral here is that if you only think ketchup can be found in the fridge, it may never even cross your mind to look in the cupboard, or vise versa. As a result, your only conclusion is that there is no ketchup to be found, when in fact the answer merely lies outside of your experience.

On the other hand, if you have a friend (aka coworker) with a different set of experiences (aka ketchup in the cupboard), your chances of finding the ketchup (aka solving a complex work problem) improve dramatically. You get the picture.

Thought diversity is not exactly a new concept. There are plenty of great articles outlining its importance and best practices.

However, organizations have been slower to adopt these practices compared to more traditional diversity initiatives. And thanks to Michael Scott, we know how incredibly...interesting...those initiatives can be.

One of the goals of demographic diversity programs has been to eliminate discrimination – overt or subconscious – against minorities in the hiring process (most notably age, sex, and race). A valiant effort to be sure, what organizations are coming to realize is that simply looking diverse may be necessary, but it is not sufficient.  

For instance, take a typical job posting for a position one rung up from entry level that isn’t super technical/specialized (programming, engineering, medicine etc.). It outlines requirements for a specific kind of bachelors degree, masters preferred (of course), specifically 3-5 years of work experience in a specific field, knowledge of specific programs, experience running specific projects, and specific work in a specific industry. That’s pretty specific.

The question becomes, how diverse of a candidate pool are you really going to get with these kind of specifications, even with a focus on demographic inclusivity?

Is the goal just to fill quotas or check a box, thereby devaluing the legitimately great work of many minority candidates? Are we truly moving toward a system that targets the best candidates rather than the familiar or politically correct?

I understand there are a multitude of variables for how companies communicate job openings, like the size and notoriety of the organization itself to the type of application platform (e.g. internet post vs. college job fair) to the type of industry. However, I believe many organizations suffer from a shortage of innovation and creativity due to a short-sighted emphasis on visual diversity rather than thought diversity. This has serious ramifications for an organization’s future if you subscribe to the idea that a company’s greatest asset is its employees   

Great, so we can we do to fix the issue?

Let’s revisit our sample job post. How can we make one tweak to prioritize an intellectually diverse candidate pool? Simple.

I had a basketball coach in high school who would always talk about how he was from Missouri, the Show Me State. He’d say things like, “You’re telling me you deserve a starting spot. I’m from Missouri! Show me!” He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page so my teammates and I couldn’t confirm the origin story, but he seemed convincing enough.

In the same way, ask applicants to show they belong.

If the post aims to recruit from a specific background from a specific industry with a specific amount of experience, ask candidates who do not fit the mold (like those looking to change careers or have value the organization hasn’t considered) to answer the question, “Why do you believe this job is for you?” in 250 words or less.

So like a cover letter? No. Goodness no. Cover letters are at best glossaries for this season’s trendiest buzzwords and at worst a resume in paragraph form. Make the submission only available in comment-box form rather than a place to upload a Word file.

This is a “show me” statement. And it accomplishes 3 important objectives:

1) It forces the organization to take diversity seriously

If a company is humble and self-aware enough to realize they can’t always prescribe the perfect candidate, leaving the door cracked for atypical candidates shows an external and internal commitment to thought diversity. Prospective as well as current employees see that the organization prioritizes the right person over the right resume, which can have a tremendously positive ripple effect.

2) Recruiters get a feel for the candidate’s voice

Every self-respecting job post has an obligatory “excellent communication skills” section (as a communication professional, you can imagine the severity of my facepalms whenever I see this phrase. Hint, it’s pretty severe.). Analyzing what a candidate does with a few paragraphs to state their case for consideration gives recruiters and/or hiring managers a helpful glimpse into a non-traditional candidate’s point of view as well as one meaningful data point for their communication competence.

3) It self-selects against application “trolls”

I’m a fan of other diversity enhancers like eliminating required years of experience, but sometimes these mainstays signal helpful information to an applicant beyond the requirement itself (e.g. this is more of a mid-career job or this is what we mean by Experienced Associate). In addition, striking requirements like years of experience can sometimes leave a posting vulnerable to job trolls – that is, non serious applicants. The advantage of a “show me” statement is it drastically reduces the chances of job trolling by putting one extra step of effort in the process. And even if one slips through, you can probably spot it right off the bat.

Of course, there is one drawback to this approach for recruiters and hiring managers. You actually have to read the statements. However, this is a small price to pay for the potential return. If your role has an impact on hiring decisions and your organization is committed to diverse talent, this should be a no brainer.

So what’s the point?

“Show me” statements are a simple step any organization can make right now to help advance the value of thought diversity in the workplace.

As Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, states, “Making great hires is about making great matches, and often they’re not what you’d expect.”

Prioritizing thought diversity as the central mission of a hiring strategy does just that, maximizing the potential for great talent by realizing great matches go beyond arbitrary specifications. Companies that take advantage of this approach are in the pull position in the race toward innovation and the future of work.

An airtight resume is great. Glowing references, definitely a plus. But if we truly want to set up our organizations for success over the long term, we have to look for talent where the light isn’t shining the brightest.

Sometimes we have to look in the fridge, sometimes in the cupboard. And sometimes we have to ask, “Show me.”