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Faux Diversity in Recruiting

I.
Have you ever read any of those New York Times wedding announcements?

The couple dated at Princeton, but had met a few years earlier, in 2007, in North Haven, Me., when Ms. du Pont offered a ride to Mr. Sutherland and a friend, whom Ms. du Pont knew. The two men had just moored their sailboat and were preparing for a long row back to the dock, whereas she was piloting her family’s motorized tender. They took the ride.

If you’re wondering if Ms. du Pont is the “we invented nylon” DuPont1, you would be right.

One gets the sense that these people aren’t like us. Most of us don’t meet our future spouses while mooring our sailboats. That sort of thing is for the sort of people who get their weddings announced in the New York Times.2

It’s not a wedding announcement, but I suspect people had the same reaction when they read this sponsored content in Business Insider about a beautiful “HSBC exec” and her charmed lifestyle, complete with meditation, catching up with friends and family across Europe, Asia, and the US given her galavanting adventures in finance, tennis, and a brick-laid walk to work where she arrives “around 9” just before her hour-and-a-half lunch overlooking the San Francisco bay bridge.3

That’s before she heads “back to work”, which looks like this and involves “[celebrating and promoting] 10 inspiring women in the financial technology space.”

Faux Diversity in Recruiting

Finally,

On the evenings that we stay in Palo Alto, we walk down the tree-lined University Avenue, reflecting upon our key wins and challenges and preparing for the adventures of the next day,” [Vik: Emphases added]

HSBC has gotten other women to write their stories and positive experiences with them in other venues. This is guerrilla marketing done well.

Make no mistake. The story above is not about Melania Edwards. She is simply a placeholder. It’s about the corporation employing her that makes her presumed lifestyle possible with the implication that it can do the same for you too, if you happen to be a young go-getter fresh out of school.

II.
It’s a trope that people are a company’s greatest asset, but it’s actually true in some service industries like finance. Firms like HSBC are widely known to burn through new graduates quickly. Hiring is a key part of the business. They need a continual flow of fresh blood. They want to reach the top students in the schools at which they recruit and convince them to work for them over competitors (or at least if Goldman Sachs turns them down). This is as it has always been.

The new, politically tinged wrinkle is that banks know there are PR gains to be had from having women in leadership positions. They don’t actually have women in their ranks who are candidates for these positions though, so they need to start recruiting women now and hope some of them will survive.

How does one recruit women? One of the truisms of the day is that representation matters. For example, when you hand someone a brochure for your company, is it stacked solely with profiles of white and Asian people? That can be good if you seek to recruit more of the same. If you’d like to appeal to women though, you want to show them working for you. You want to recruit to the demographic of the employees you want, not to the demographic of the employees you already have.

III.
The well-meaning desire to represent one’s self as already diverse to recruit future diversity can itself lead to problematic behavior. The University of Wisconsin famously photoshopped a black student into the stands of a football game on the cover of its undergraduate admissions application. The student had never attended any football game.

They would have been better served by listening to that student rather than copy-pasting his image:

“The admissions department that we’ve been talking about, I believe, was on the fourth floor, and multicultural student center was on the second floor of that same building,” he says. “So you didn’t need to create false diversity in the picture — all you really needed to do was go downstairs.”

NPR says that “Tim Pippert, a sociologist at Augsburg College in Minnesota” instead found that

the whiter the school, the more diversity depicted in the brochures, especially for certain groups… “When we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body,” he says. “They were photographed at 14.5 percent.”

It turns out your university might be compensating for something.

I have some vicarious familiarity with something similar. When my wife’s business school wanted to release a new brochure, they sent a photographer to her classroom. She’s one of the few women teaching in an overwhelmingly male school. Despite that—no, because of that—a large photo of her was given prominent placement.

When your kid goes to school, you might be asked to sign a waiver for your child to be photographed. Though this was in a packet all parents receive, I suspected immediately that my daughter’s image was likely to be actually used. She’s a tiny Asian girl in a white school in a white city in an even whiter state. She’s the safe kind of diversity that a school might want to be identified with as long as it is in digestible portions. I put this thought aside. Then, a few months later I saw her photo in a newspaper ad.

IV.
With all this in mind, how do we judge HSBC’s marketing strategy?

Marketing isn’t reporting. It is aspirational. It is materials purposefully designed to create a specific impression. It is that Business Insider article. When it comes time to apply to HSBC, this is the aspiration:

Faux Diversity in Recruiting

I’m going to neglect my journalistic duty to find out and instead guess that the black woman with magnificent hair and perfect skin gazing at the marketing copy to the right of her instead of the MacBook in front of her is a model and not an HSBC employee. She is who HSBC is imagining they want to apply. What could be wrong with that?

While professional models likely photograph better than the average HSBC employee, there’s something more honest in the embarrassing attempts at diversity used by my wife’s and my daughter’s school and even by HSBC itself in the Business Insider ad. HSBC at least paid Melania Edwards, and she is presumably a real employee. Likewise, my wife’s university pays her, and she is a real employee. My daughter is at least a real student.

V.

Faux Diversity in Recruiting
When a company’s photographs say “you belong here,” that should actually be true. When your brochure has 20% black students and your real-life campus has less than 5%, that is in some sense misleading advertising. At some point, your aspirational message is essentially a lie.

Needless to say, I believe the remedy in such situations ought to be to figure out how to recruit more students for your campus rather than simply drop students’ pictures from the brochures. At some point, the aspirations can run so far ahead of reality that it leads to inevitable disappointment among those you convince to join you.

That is a problem with aspirations. Sooner or later, you need to find a way to make them come true.

  1. E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company if we’re going to be particular about it []
  2. I apologize if you do happen to be that sort. Welcome! []
  3. Business Insider doesn’t list it as sponsored content, but come on. It is. []

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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25 thoughts on “Faux Diversity in Recruiting

  1. Ms. Edwards has a LinkedIn page that lists her as an HSBC employee. She does appear to have a bunch of these certificates and is also model level pretty. Maybe she was a model at one point. That I don’t know.

    The theory I have seen is that HSBC is having a hard time recruiting and did this to show how fabulous it is to work there. If you do the math, she works about 4 to 5 hours a day by attending meetings and getting coffee with clients. Plus she lives in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities. Her boyfriend is handsome yet adorkable.

    The heat I have seen this article get is that a lot of twitter did not think she sounded like a real person. They “key wins” lines caused a lot of twitter eye rolls. The other thing that caused a lot of hate reads was her podcast selection especially the GOOP podcast. I had not heard of the others but the fact that there is a podcast called Dorm Room Tycoon depresses me. What happened to dorm room poet?

    But I have met people who are that careerist. They might not say key wins but they do seemed relentlessly focused on career growth. I think this is foreign to a lot of people because most people don’t attend too schools and they have other interests and hobbies. I am overwhelmed by the way hyper careerist people talk about jobs. Do they like to do anything else?

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    • I agree with Saul, the “buzzwords” that people see as red flags, I’ve met enough folks from my management time in the corporate world that there are people who think and talk exactly like that. There is a certain strand of “hyper careerist,” to use Saul’s term, and they are tunnel vision like this person is portrayed here. Obviously a company wants someone who is that ate up with corporate culture and success, as no doubt that meets their needs. The problem of course is overtly recruiting that specific of a personality type is going to land flat with everyone who isn’t like that, which is probably 95% of people.

      The larger problem I have is, as someone who when working was results and process oriented, I just couldn’t get over how inefficent and (if taken at face value) unproductive this individual is. Meetings and errands are “dead time” that isn’t producing anything. The manager in me understands it, but the grinder in me hates it.

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      • It reminds me of the Simpsons line “isn’t pro-active one of those words that stupid people use to sound smart.” There are people who really believe that real intelligence lies in making bank and pursuing your career. Anything more abstract is useless to them. They like money, power, status, and ambition. They can’t really comprehend anything else.

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        • I hear you. Re-entered the civilian workforce in my early thirties, and “management trainee” me did a lot of tongue biting to fresh-out-of-college management types. The ones that went straight on to MBA’s and were in the real world for the first time at 25-26 or whatever were an interesting experience to work with.

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          • But it does seem like she works what used to be called “Banker’s hours” and those seem like the days of a vanished time. For me it was the relentless careerism, the twice a day workouts (tennis in the morning, yoga in the evenings)*,
            plus the relentless careerism (business oriented podcasts, talking about key wins). Does she watch TV? movies? Listen to music? Read books? Ever just want to eat a pizza?

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            • I’m the wrong person to ask, as I never did do “bankers hours,” and even in my semi-retired current state do not keep a set schedule like that.

              Although I’m sure embellished for the article/advert, it reminded me of when the big push was “whole person” and “life balance” as some of those buzzwords people liked to through around. Here’s another of those trendy business buzzword things; that cocooned lifestyle described within would make you fully capable inside the set circles of Paulo Alto, but her “EQ” to those outside that world might be a whole different story.

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              • Right. She is seemingly an affluent woman in her early to mid 30s. Maybe even younger and without kids. She has enough money from her job and/or other sources to allow her to live in one of SF’s most expensive neighborhoods and possibly maintain a place down in Palo Alto. A lot of the critiques were from people who had kids and worse commutes.

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            • Saul Degraw: But it does seem like she works what used to be called “Banker’s hours” and those seem like the days of a vanished time.

              Banker’s hours was never actually a real work schedule, was it? My understanding is that it referred to the time that banks were open for accepting transactions, and the rest of the day they closed to the public so that they could process the transactions, which was labor-intensive in the days when it was all done by hand.

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          • If we believe the description in the article, she’s pretty clearly doing sales:

            Once Edwards gets into work, her day is full of meetings with venture-capital firms, technology companies, and new startups.

            During these meetings, she and her colleagues help these companies identify various ways that they can work with HSBC, from providing them with international banking services to connecting them with HSBC’s digital and investment teams.

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            • Its not clear to me that it is sales, actually. Its likely in the Sales/Marketing nexus but I think it sounds more like BizDev and maybe even Relationship Management/Customer Success type of position. I’m not 100% sure how FinServe BizDev works, but that’s what it looks like to me… more marketing than sales, but tied to sales and generally more lucrative than marketing ops, but less so than sales.

              I mean, one can only infer so much from tennis, yoga and tea… but the biz side of things seemed much more relationship oriented than deal oriented.

              Could be, of course, that they are hiding the grinding pain of hitting quarterly quotas and constant judgement of performance against your peers and the daily gnawing at your gut that you’ll most likely be killed in the morning… but that doesn’t sell quite as well.

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    • Tech causes some weird distortions in the Bay Area economy even if you can’t code or do other science things. Many law firms can’t hire enough paralegals because they can’t affird tech level salaries and benefits. This means lawyers, especially in real person areas, need to do s lot of paralegal work.

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    • Ms. Edwards has a LinkedIn page that lists her as an HSBC employee. She does appear to have a bunch of these certificates and is also model level pretty. Maybe she was a model at one point. That I don’t know.

      There are a more-than-fair number of marketing people around who look that nice. It’s rarer with the engineering crowd but they still exist (I work with two… but my group isn’t typical).

      My expectation is any large group will have “could have been a model” people around. My other expectation is that isn’t typical.

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  2. Would you rather:

    A) Work for a diverse banking workplace that launders money for terrorists
    B) Work for a pretty homogenized banking workplace that claims to be diverse that launders money for terrorists

    Get your degree in finance!

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  3. There really isn’t a difference between the DuPont family wedding announcement and the HSBC diversity profile. They are really just ads, ads for how the the companies want to be perceived. A wedding notice in the NYT (with yachts!) says “we are old, respected, placed and genteel. Join us for this.” HSBC’s in LinkedIn (with women!) is saying “we are young, cool, fresh and hip. Join us for this.” The only real difference is how successful they are at it.

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  4. I agree with Vikram’s description of the brochures and advertisements as aspirational. I would think that they are a plus in the sense that they would show a minority or woman that, at some level, the institution is interested in having someone like them.

    And where they might fail is in showing that the institution has any clue as to how to deal with a person like them. How many idiotic comments in meetings would they have to endure? How many dumb racial stereotypes are going to show up in office email, or on bulletin boards? And so on.

    I’m rarely, but not never, in the situation of not being the normal person the group expects, and it can be uncomfortable. Still, I’m hardly an expert, that just seems like it might be an issue.

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    • The other problem with aspirational ads is that they often neglect the amount of work it takes to get there. How many years did it take to get there. Did she work as an intern for two summers? Where did she start, both geographically, and positionally? How much sexism and harassment did she tolerate to get there? Etc.

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