I Was a Diversity Hire

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I might have been a quota hire. And if I was, I’m glad.

It was 1997. I was working as an editor at a trade magazine and attending journalism school at night when I got an out-of-the-blue call from another magazine here at Time Inc. The managing editor of that publication had pulled out a freelance article I’d written for The New York Times and asked his editors why they hadn’t come up with it. An enterprising editor on his staff tracked me down, and a few interviews later, here I was with a job offer. Or so I was told.

For a young reporter with a scrappy background, a job offer from this vaunted institution isn’t something you think about. You take it, then think about it later. So I did.

About a month later, a couple of my new colleagues took me to lunch (this was back in the Palaeozaic Era, when Time Inc. financed such things). “Ah,” one said, about our boss. “You know he’s the king of the diversity hire.”

The rumor–and it’s merely a rumor, but it was well circulated in those days–was that our boss led the company in hirings of women and minorities (I’m two-in-one–bingo!). My colleagues told me he had financial incentive to do so–that division bosses were compensated in part for the diversity of their staffs. Our boss, it had just come out in Adweek magazine, was the highest paid magazine editor in the country.

I have to tell you I was put out at first. I’d never gotten anywhere at all on my connections, which is rightful, seeing as I had none. Why should I get somewhere on my race and gender? Moreover, why should someone else get an extra check in his Christmas stocking because of my race and gender?

In this week’s TIME, I wrote about some surprising new research about diversity programs at work–what works and what doesn’t in hiring and promoting women and minorities. It begins:

Some decades ago, the powers that be declared that employee diversity was a good thing, as desirable as double-digit profit margins. It’s proving just as difficult to achieve. Companies try all sorts of things to attract and promote minorities and women. They hire organizational psychologists. They staff booths at diversity fairs. They host dim-sum brunches and salsa nights. The most popular–and expensive–approach is diversity training, or workshops to teach executives to embrace the benefits of a diverse staff. Too bad it doesn’t work.

Their findings:

A groundbreaking new study by three sociologists shows that diversity training has little to no effect on the racial and gender mix of a company’s top ranks. Frank Dobbin of Harvard, Alexandra Kalev of the University of California, Berkeley, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota sifted through decades of federal employment statistics provided by companies. Their analysis found no real change in the number of women and minority managers after companies began diversity training. That’s right–none. Networking didn’t do much, either. Mentorships did. Among the least common tactics, one–assigning a diversity point person or task force–has the best record of success. “Companies have spent millions of dollars a year on these programs without actually knowing, Are these efforts worth it?” Dobbin says. “In the case of diversity training, the answer is no.”

Here’s what it comes down to: accountability. If the big boss considers staff diversity important–whatever his motivation, be it professional pride or a little bonus or sincere good intent–then things happen. My boss back then, for the record, did well by me. Besides hiring me, he immediately assigned me to meaty stories and talented editors. I hope I did well by him, too, by working hard and enthusiastically. I stayed at that publication for four years before moving to a sister magazine.

I might have been hired in part because of my race and gender. But I believe my race and gender give me value here by lending me unique insights that reflect more and more of our readers’. Maybe he saw that, too. So, to that old boss, I say: thanks.