LinkedIn’s Diversity Struggles Don’t Come From a Lack of Talent

October 19, 2016, 11:00 PM UTC
Inside LinkedIn Corp. Headquarters Ahead Of Earnings Figures
An employee works on a laptop computer at LinkedIn Corp. headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Monday, July 28, 2014. LinkedIn Corp. is scheduled to release earnings figures on July 31. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

LinkedIn released its latest workplace diversity report yesterday. At best, the news was mixed.

Where the professional networking platform has made small strides in some areas, like increasing the number of women in leadership positions, the report showed only a small improvement in their number of black and Latino workers. They now occupy 3% and 5% of the roles at LinkedIn in the U.S., respectively, up from 2% and 4% last year.

In her excellent analysis of LinkedIn’s report, Fortune’s Stacy Jones uncovered some other issues that highlight how bias and inexperience might cause serious, if inadvertent, barriers to inclusive hiring. It’s a must-read.

In Jones’s piece, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, the executive director at ReadySet, an Oakland-based diversity solutions firm points out a unique irony of LinkedIn’s struggles: “If they can’t or won’t get it right, then who will? LinkedIn has literally every worker’s bio. That’s an enormous resource,” said Hutchinson. “The multiplier effect is not just limited to positive impact. It can be negative too.”

LinkedIn’s struggle with diversifying its workforce also raises the so-called “pipeline” issue—the claim that there isn’t the necessary talent coming up the ranks—that has become annoyingly familiar for anyone doing diversity and inclusion work. It’s an issue that crops up across all sectors, not just in tech.

“It’s a myth,” says Rory E. Verrett, managing director of Protégé Search, a boutique advisory firm which recruits and develops diverse talent. “I just went to a Harvard law celebration of black alumni. There were 1,600 black lawyers there, every one outstanding. There’s no pipeline problem.” There is, however, a commitment problem. “Recruiters are just not connecting the dots,” Verrett says. “It’s that simple.”

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Verrett has had numerous jobs in executive recruiting, including a stint in-house as head of talent management for the NFL. One problem, he says, is that executive recruiting is a largely white, male field. Diversity becomes a checklist, not a way of thinking. “There has to be an institutional commitment to that talent—following them over the course of their careers, understanding their strengths, their accomplishments, how they’ve grown, what makes them tick,” he says.

Is there an ombudsman holding people accountable for diversity initiatives? As LinkedIn demonstrates, sitting on a database of diverse talent isn’t enough. Make sure recruiters are providing more than one diverse candidate on a slate. And ask them about their own experience recruiting diverse candidates for their own firms. “If you want your recruiter to bring you more diverse candidates, start by asking how diverse their own firm is,” he says.

In addition, companies can and should do more to help people manage the barriers they face. “I’ve seen this time and time again—minority executives watch less qualified white peers get promoted, get raises, and get identified as high performers more than them, and it’s demoralizing,” Verrett says. Twenty or 30 years into a career, the opportunity costs start to add up. “Companies need to step up their game and address these issues head on if you want to recruit or retain these executives,” he says.


But, looking ahead, Verrett concedes that the talent pipeline might be in danger of thinning out. Corporate life has significantly less appeal to young people of color entering the workforce than it used to. “Millennials came of age in a golden age of minority entrepreneurship—watching Jay Z, Tyler Perry and Beyonce, become multi-millionaire entrepreneurs without spending one day in corporate America,” he says.

New digital tools and access to a global marketplace make start-up life even more accessible. “Add to that mom and dad’s frustration with corporate life,” Verrett notes, “and you have the gumbo that creates the strong entrepreneurial pull for millennials.”


Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune.