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Using Competencies To Enhance Workplace Diversity

By Mirette Sedarous on July, 25 2016
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Mirette Sedarous

The business case for diversity is clear: diverse workplaces are happier, more innovative, and more profitable. 

While there’s no quick solution for building diversity in the workplace, integrating the right competencies into your talent management approach can be an important first step.

Many organizations commit to greater diversity in the workplace because it’s a social good, but it’s also good for business.

Companies that develop the capacity to see beyond the status quo and embrace difference enjoy a far wider talent to draw from, and in a business world where a company’s talent is its greatest asset, that’s a huge competitive advantage.


Diversity drives success

The link between diversity and corporate success is strong. According to McKinsey research, ethnically diverse companies are 35% and gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to financially outperform the industry median.

A report by Catalyst found that Fortune 500 companies with high ratios of women board directors financially outperformed those with the lowest ratios. And in an HBR article, Todd L. Pittinsky, an academic and author who specializes in workplace diversity, suggests that bias stifles creativity.

While bias creates negative emotions, including fear, anger, and contempt, recent research links positive emotions such as joy, interest, and anticipation with novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions—a recipe for innovation and a range of enhanced skills and resources.

But achieving greater workplace diversity is no easy matter; biases are hard to shift at the individual and organizational level. Here are three ways that competencies can help to foster an environment where diversity can flourish.


Core competencies support inclusivity

One of the best-known ways to enhance workplace diversity is to introduce a core competency into the organization that supports this objective.

Core competencies offer a powerful and focused way to shift and reinforce a new organizational culture because they define and direct, in behavioral terms, the values and strengths that every employee must demonstrate in order to differentiate the organization in a competitive marketplace.

Championing a competency such as “valuing diversity” at every level and in every position can make a strong statement about the organization’s commitment to diversity.

It also enables the organization to measure its progress and evaluate its employees according to their ability to encourage behaviors that embrace new perspectives and encourage social cohesion.

For more insight into core competencies, read “The difference between core competencies and values.”


Validated competencies reveal the blind spots

While research shows that self-awareness among individuals within the organization is a key element in  achieving greater diversity, it also shows that we chronically underestimate or fail to recognize our biases. And without warning systems in place to alert us to our biases, we will continue to justify them as rationale business decisions.

Fortunately, there are tools to enable us to outsmart ourselves and uncover hidden bias at the individual and organizational level.

For example, technologies such as Textio can analyze job postings for evidence of biased language that could be inadvertently discouraging qualified candidates, and the Implicit Association Test can help you recognize attitudes and beliefs about race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, and disability that could be preventing you from seeing a candidate’s true potential.

Even the way job requirements are defined can inadvertently disadvantage diverse candidates. Competencies help to address bias by filtering out extraneous considerations and focusing on the behaviors that define job success.

However, some competencies can still contain content that excludes certain candidates. To ensure that your competencies are inclusive, it’s a good idea to contract a competency and diversity expert to validate your competencies. This type of specialist can analyze your competency content to uncover any biases hidden in your behavioral indicators that could dissuade applicants, exclude candidates, and undervalue employees.

For example, an “assertiveness” competency might include “looking into a person’s eyes while talking” as a behavioral indicator. This tends to be a key criterion for interviews, too, with 67% of employers in one study indicating that failure to make eye contact during an interview influenced the hiring decision.

However, in some cultures, this type of direct gaze is considered rude or intimidating, rather than confident or engaging.


Competency frameworks minimize exposure

The more extraneous information we collect about candidates and employees, the more likely we are to discover information about them that could trigger our biases. A 2015 study showed that five percent of hiring decisions are made in the first minute of the interview—far too soon to be based on anything truly relevant to the position.

Another survey of 2,000 employers showed that a wide range of irrelevant factors influenced hiring decisions, including how fashionably the candidate was dressed, whether they smiled, and how firm their handshake was. Minimizing our exposure to these distracting influences can prevent biases from coming into play.

In the 1980s, the classical music industry addressed gender bias and increased the number of female instrumentalists from five to 30 percent by introducing blind auditions in which performers were hidden behind a screen.

Similarly, technologies such as GapJumpers enable companies to filter any biasing information while filtering candidates and testing their abilities. Pythian, a global IT services company, offers a technology that scans and removes information such as names, university names, and other data from resumes before they reach HR.

Developing a competency framework for your organization can also help to recruit and develop talent based on objective, measurable, job-relevant behaviors rather than personal preference or hard-to-define notions of “authenticity” or “cultural fit.”

A competency framework ensures that all jobs in the organization are structured and defined consistently and that the behaviors associated with the job have been validated against the performance of successful employees.

Want to learn more about using competencies? Get started with our Competency Toolkit:

Download your Competency Toolkit using the form below.



Post last updated: June 20, 2019.

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