Michael SamMichael Sam, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, came out on Sunday. If he plays professionally, he will be the first openly gay player in the NFL.

Sports Illustrated interviewed 8 NFL executives anonymously on what they thought this announcement would do to his draft prospects. They were uniformly pessimistic, saying that they felt it would lower where he is picked, and whether he is picked at all.

One NFL scout said, “I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down [in the draft picks].  There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?'”

Well, breaking the barrier was pretty good for the Brooklyn Dodgers when they signed Jackie Robinson. Robinson won the new “Rookie of the Year” award and the Dodgers won four of the next seven National League pennants.

Branch Rickey is remembered for signing Robinson; can you name another baseball general manager from the 1940s?

However, a number of current and former players have publicly supported Michael Sam, so maybe the executives are more conservative than many of those in the locker rooms.

I once heard a simple formula for hiring: When you’re hiring there are only three questions that you really need to answer:

  • Can the person do the job? (Do they have the skills, experience, etc?)
  • Do they want to do the job? (Are they enthusiastic about this job and your company, or are they just looking for a paycheck?)
  • Will they fit in?

And that of the three, the last question is the most important.

The last question is the most important when it comes to diversity, too, because having a narrow definition of “fitting in” is the difference between a homogeneous and a diverse workforce.

Having sold to and worked with hundreds of organizations, I’ve seen how homogeneous some companies can be, whether by race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion. And how diverse others are.

Unfortunately the tech industry does not have a great track record when it comes to diversity. In fact, it’s pretty poor. A recent report shows that Silicon Valley companies have far fewer female executives and board members than major companies in other industries. Twitter was justifiably criticized for not having a single female board member when they announced their IPO; they named their first one, Marjorie Scardino, in December.

Almost all of the racial diversity in tech companies is from Asians; there are very few Blacks or Hispanics. Even for Asians their participation tends to peak in the professional ranks and decline at the manager and executive levels.

This New York Times article gives a pretty sobering (disgusting) picture of the cultural barriers facing women engineers.

And you don’t have to look any farther than the group employee pictures on many careers sections to see the how much the industry skews towards younger workers.

Why does having a diverse workforce of skilled people matter? It matters in hiring for the same reason that it matters in nature: diversity leads to survival. In business, diversity is likely to bring in knowledge and attitudes that a homogeneous culture doesn’t. If you’re discriminating against people from any group, whether consciously or unconsciously, you’re cutting out a pool of talented people who could help your business.

  • When “blind” auditions were introduced for orchestras, where the performer sits behind a screen so their gender, race, etc., are hidden, the number of women winning competitions for open seats dramatically increased.
  • A survey of 64,000 people in 13 countries around the world found that traits considered “feminine” were more highly prized in business and organizations than “masculine” traits.
  • Female legislators are more effective than men in moving their bills through Congress.
  • Shirley Polykoff was the only female copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding when she came up with the highly-successful line for Clairol’s new hair-coloring products, “Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”
  • Multi-cultural agency Burrell Communications created the “I assume you drink Martell” campaign targeted to Black consumers; it was so successful that it was then expanded to White consumers, too. The agency has also done work for American Airlines, Comcast, Disney, General Mills, P&G, …

Increasingly companies are relying on multiple personas to refine their product features, sales and marketing. Don’t you think it would help if they had representatives of some of those personas on their staffs, too?

At Magic Hour, the company that I founded in 1998 and sold in 2009, we were a majority minority company at the time of sale, and about half female.

I defined “fitting in” as being skilled and experienced, with a positive outlook and the ability to work well with others. On their “How We Hire” page, Google calls it “Googleyness” and says, “we’ll be looking for signs around your comfort with ambiguity, your bias to action and your collaborative nature.”

But being the “right” age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. should not be part of “fitting in”.

America is an amazingly diverse country, and becoming more and more diverse in every way. About half of the labor force is female. We’re expected to become a majority minority nation in a few decades. Same-sex marriage is not just legal in 17 states (up from 0 ten years ago), but is supported by 65% of 18-29 year olds – 72% of Americans say it is “inevitable”. Older workers will be critical for filling many projected skilled workforce shortages.

Companies need to not just tolerate but celebrate diversity. Even the NFL.

[This post was later updated with the addition of the link to the New York Times article.]

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