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4 Steps to Alleviate the Diversity Problem Caused by Job Referrals

Topics: Career Advice
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Aren’t job referrals supposed to help? A new study indicates that referrals might put women and minorities at a disadvantage.

PayScale released new statistics showing that job referrals exacerbate the diversity and gender pay gap. The study analyzed 53,000 hiring decisions.

Here are the details from the study that you NEED TO KNOW:

  • 34 percent of job openings are filled with referrals.
  • White men get the majority of referrals: White men get 44 percent of referrals, white women get 22 percent, men of color get 18 percent and women of color get 16 percent.
  • The most valuable referrals in terms of salary come from former colleagues or clients, but the salaries aren’t equal: Men get average increases of $8,200, while the average pay bump for a woman is just $3,700.

Let’s say you’re a woman or minority who doesn’t get your fair share of job opportunities through job referrals. What can you do?

Here are four steps to alleviate problems with referrals, based on our research:

Step 1: Identify Progressive Companies

Companies with pro-diversity systems in place are more likely to minimize the problems identified in PayScale’s job referrals and diversity data.

Here are five examples of pro-diversity systems to look for:

Diversity pipeline programs. Microsoft has a program called LEAP, which is a pipeline building project to increase females and minorities in leadership roles.

Diversity goal setting. Accenture pledged a 50/50 gender-balanced workforce by 2025, and set a goal to increase the number of female managing directors by 25 percent.

Diversity-friendly job descriptions. Kat Matfield built a gender decoder tool to analyze usage of gendered words in job descriptions. Textio, using similar technology, sells services to companies who want to promote diversity-friendly job descriptions. These types of investments indicate a company that is serious about diversity.

Diversity requirements during the interviewing stage. Salesforce made a conscious effort to solve the diversity problem by implementing the Rooney Rule in their executive searches, which means that they interview at least one female candidate or minority for each opening. Facebook, Pinterest and PR-battered Uber have also pledged to implement the Rooney Rule in executive searches.

Diversity leader. The most progressive companies have a Chief Diversity Officer or a Head of Inclusion and Diversity. That means a senior leader with a diversity mandate has a seat at the leadership table.

And here are two more thoughts: first, be careful. Don’t dismiss companies without the “diversity” label on their HR initiatives. For example, many thoughtful companies, including Boeing, have implemented structured interviewing processes. By using the same job interview questions and the same grading criteria for each candidate, structured job interviewing can minimize many of the problems that accompany job referrals.

Second, if you don’t know where to find amazing companies with a diversity emphasis, check out Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Diversity list. It’s one of my favorite places to search for progressive companies.

Step 2: Discover Progressive Leaders

There are some amazing, progressive leaders who are known for shaping companies to minimize bias and eradicate policies that are unfriendly to women and minorities.

The most famous corporate feminist is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and leader of the Lean In movement. The bestseller, Chaos Monkeys, memorialized Sandberg’s efforts first-hand, including a story on how she reformed a sexist Facebook product manager.

As much as we want to meet (and work for) Sandberg, we may have trouble getting on her calendar. Tools like PeopleMaven can help us uncover under-the-radar yet valuable allies. Jonathan Sposato, a Seattle angel investor, is one of those gems. He’s committed to investing only in startups with female founders. In December 2017, he authored Better Together: 8 Ways Working With Women Leads to Extraordinary Products and Profits.

Step 3: Connect

Ugly statistics aside, unfairness in the job referrals game is not going to change overnight. So, make a habit of asking friends, family, ex-coworkers and fellow alums for introductions with your target hiring manager at your desired company. Utilize LinkedIn and Twitter to find contacts.

For the introductory email, keep it short and simple. Introduce yourself and explain why you want to meet. To increase their likelihood of accepting, suggest a 15-minute meeting and offer to meet at a location that’s convenient to them.

Finally, here’s a can’t-miss tip to secure an informational interview: offer to buy coffee or lunch. Just like in college, most people can’t refuse free food.

Step 4: Build Rapport, Then Show Value

During most informational interviews, job seekers ask for a job at the beginning. Resist that temptation. Instead, focus on building chemistry first and then demonstrate value.

Your goal is to build a champion at the target company. It’s hard for someone to champion a stranger who they don’t like, so work to build rapport first.

It is much easier to champion a candidate who has demonstrated the value they can add to an organization. When building value, don’t do what everyone else does: regurgitate your career background. It’s moderately effective, but a mostly boring, awkward and egocentric way to demonstrate one’s worth. And sometimes, an emphasis on the past can produce personal examples that trigger unflattering, unfair stereotypes.

So what should you do instead? Show interest in your interviewer, especially his or her day-to-day projects and challenges. Offer relevant insights, either at or after the meeting, to showcase what you can do for them.

PayScale’s surprising job referral data may alarm and disappoint us. But now you’re armed with the right tactics necessary to change the game and get your dream job.

Lewis C. Lin is the founder and CEO of PeopleMaven (, a new social media tool to help job seekers save and discover new job and networking contacts. Chelsea K. Tucker also contributed to this article.

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