How to master the diversity hiring challenge

It’s not often that you see two cybersecurity vendor CEOs agree on an issue — and yet get into a very public insult-fest with each other. Then again, this did start at RSA, so anything is possible.

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The hiring of people from under-represented groups, whether it's racial, nation of origin, sexual identity, etc., is usually non-controversial.

But even non-controversial issues can get elbows flying. The latest example: when Trellix CEO Bryan Palma argued during an RSA keynote last week that the industry needs to do a better job of hiring people from diverse backgrounds.

Palma drew on data clearing showing that ‘straight white men dominate our industry,’" according to a story about the speech in InfoSecurity Magazine. "He argued that the industry is turning away great, diverse people and consequently ‘doing our industry a disservice. ‘We are neglecting to provide pathways for people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The lack of diversity restricts ingenuity, innovation and our ability to recruit the next generation of cybersecurity professionals."

After Palma’s speech, SmartHive CEO Sanjay Patel took to LinkedIn to say Palma deserves the “hypocrite of the century award” because the pictures of the senior executives at Trellix on the company's website seemed to show a decidedly white, male, middle-aged group.

Patel clarified in an interview that he sees a lot of companies where “worker bees are diverse,” but said that's not so for senior managers. 

Trellix, shockingly, didn’t take kindly to Patel’s post. Michael Alicea, the Trellix Chief Human Resources Officer, in a separate interview, slammed Patel’s post as “a cheap shot” and countered that “50% of our leadership comes from under-represented groups. (Patel) actually did what he is accusing others of doing. He looked at a website (picture page) and he made judgments.”

It’s worth noting that Palma has only been CEO for nine months, which isn't much time to reshape a 5,000-person workforce. 

Now that all of that name-calling is out of the way, I should stress that both Patel and Alicea highlighted a real hiring problem and why it is extremely difficult to fix. (Yes, different people would define “fixed” very differently.)

Patel gave an interesting example — from his own history — where HR can give an official- and proper-sounding reason to push back against a minority applicant. He said that the company (a former employer) had narrowed down the list of applications for a specific role to three candidates. When HR was told to shrink that list so that one finalist can be identified, a minority application was struck because HR said he had poor communication skills.

But when Patel dug into the details, it turned out the “communication” problem was simply a thick accent. Various manager interviewers had difficulty understanding the applicant’s answers. 

Patel argued that executives and managers “need to take the time to understand someone who speaks a little differently. We have people all over the world.” He added that his next step was to “make sure that every candidate had an accent.”

This is a perspective issue. Who would this applicant be talking with in the job? Would he be talking with colleagues? Customers? Would those customers be calling in from other countries? Depending on the region, that communication-limited applicant might be well-understood by customers — perhaps better than an American with an American accent.

Patel also takes issue with some of the moves enterprises have taken to try and hire more employees from under-represented groups. For example, he dislikes the title of “chief diversity officer,” which he said was “the most racist title any company could have.” He said that role diminishes the value of minority hires and can make them feel like token hires. “Nobody wants to be the diversity candidate because anything they do will always be tainted.

“Make (inclusiveness) part of your culture. Fix (problems) by getting rid of silly rules like requiring X percent of applications” be minority applicants, Patel said. “Put in these rules and people find their way around it.” 

Another problem: over-emphasizing experience. It can be an excellent attribute, but many minorities move from one company to another never getting appropriately promoted. In that case, their "experience" — possibly tainted by successive bad company cultures — might hold them back. Instead, the focus should be on talent, skills, how an applicant thinks and other specifics. 

This issue goes beyond having employees who can think and talk like customers and partners. In cybersecurity, a diverse group of employees might perform better at thinking like the attackers they're trying to thwart. “A lot of attacks are coming from other countries. Why not hire people with similar background” to the attackers?" Patel said.

A big chunk of the problem comes from HR trying to guess who a hiring manager would likely most want. Often, recruiters get compensated by how quickly they can find the candidate the hiring manager will hire. To that end, HR will often look at that manager’s existing staff and try and deliver applicants who are similar to those people. 

Some of this is the much-discussed technology bias. Patel said that when he goes to LinkedIn to search for candidates, he finds that almost all of the people shown are of Indian background, just like Patel. Even the LinkedIn algorithm is trying to send Patel people like him.

Trellix’s Alicea agrees that hiring diverse groups can be tricky, though he argues that it’s essential. But he also said that company culture can be a powerful factor.

“I was born Puerto Rican in New York. Being the only one of my kind in every room I have experienced” is common, Alicea said. “There is no way in my career that I could have made it — or had success — unless you had a white, middle-aged guy helping. Truly good intentions require curiosity over judgments. What it takes is discipline.”

Alicea also brought up experience, but he had a different take: even without bias, experience can be overrated. “I have seen requests for eight years of experience. You don’t need that level of experience. We can train them. I want (the applicants) to be smart and capable. You start insisting on certain timeframes (years of experience) and you start excluding people. You insist on certain advanced degrees and you start excluding people.” 

This all starts with posting an employment ad in places where the widest possible group of people will see it, such as job boards at universities with a high percentage of minority students. 

Alicea gave an example of how he processes position requests: “We might have six or seven finalists. What is the team makeup now? What does the team need? You’re pitching government accounts and you don’t have one woman? Not one African American?”

It also helps, Alicea said, to start at the lowest levels. “We have a program where you bring people in early in their career and develop them. Thus far (this year), we have hired 100 interns and 30% of our interns are underrepresented. Our goal is to convert them into employees. We’ll probably convert at least 50%.” 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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