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  • Writer's pictureBen Capell

An eye-opener to otherwise blind auditions: Increasing diversity by making it visible

Over the last couple of months, the field of Diversity & Inclusion has gone through a serious shakeup. Floyd's murder, the Black Lives Matter movement, global Anti-Racial, and increased public awareness of how racism is ingrained in so many aspects of life (e.g., in structures and institutions), helped push the field of D&I outside of its comfort zone. More and more voices are calling for changing one of the core pillars of the D&I approach- the strive for the invisibility of race, and other diversity categories in hiring, assessment, promotion, and even redundancy processes. The emerging approach looks at increasing diversity by doing quite the opposite, making it visible and incorporated into the decision making process and criteria.

The calls for this new and quite opposite direction may feel quite a surprise, not only for business and HR leaders but also for diversity professionals. After all, people are now being advised to actively "see" race and talk about it when making people decisions, rather than doing their best to ignore its presence. The short article below will help shed some clarity on the future direction of D&I work, in general, with ideas to help you apply it to (your) specific organizations.

Until recently, the focus of many D&I programs was on highlighting the benefits of D&I (e.g., innovation, talent) while working on increasing inclusion by changing individual attitudes (e.g., Unconscious Bias programs). While this approach has its benefits and contribution, an increasing number of stakeholders and organizations are looking for more and are demanding and ready to take bolder steps.

As a consultant with over 20 years of D&I experience in global organizations, I find this call for expanding the boundaries and contribution of D&I work as a blessing. It creates a needed opportunity to make a more significant positive impact on individuals, organizations, and society at large. At the same time, growth also involves moving beyond comfort zones. Over the last few months, I have spent much time dialoguing with relevant stakeholders, e.g., clients, employees, and activists, learned and internalized new perspectives, identified opportunities for more significant impact, and incorporated new strategies to facilitate organizational change.

This current step in my professional and personal journey brought with it many insights and benefits. The expanded approach to D&I allows for deeper and more honest conversations with business and HR leaders on how to drive positive change.

Through my discussions with clients, I also noticed some uncertainty regarding what they should change in their people management processes. After all, well-intended organizations already invested much effort in improving fairness in their selection, assessment, and promotion practices. Did they get it wrong? Will a few additional tweaks will do the work? Or are we looking into a more significant paradigm shift?

Over the last week, I came across a couple of articles that seem to illustrate well what I think will be the direction of D&I practices. Both pieces, one by Anthony Tommasini, Chief Critic of NYT, and the other by an internationally acclaimed conductor, Leonard Slatkin, recommend changing the flagship of imparity best practices in orchestras' auditions- blind auditions- for the sake of (hold your breath…) increasing diversity!.

The two independent articles' arguments shed light on the advantages and limitations of current practices, which for the sake of reducing bias and making HR processes fairer, emphasize taking diversity parameters out of the equation. Their discussion also provokes thoughts on what other organizations ought to consider so they increase further the representation of various groups in their workforce and leadership ranks.

Blind auditions at orchestras refer to a selection protocol where the musician performs behind a screen, so the audition committee, who can only hear them, would not get influenced by race or gender factors. This practice, introduced in the early '70s, helped increase female representation in major orchestras from around 6% to close to 50%. The philosophy behind this simple yet clever approach is considered a blueprint of many HR practices set deliberately to reduce bias, such as requesting candidates not to include photo or age data in their CV's or focusing strictly on clearly defined competence criteria for assessment.

Alongside the great achievement of blind auditions, there is also a less impressive data point indicating that they were wholly unsuccessful in increasing the representation of blacks and other people of color, which remain extremely low till the current age.

The explanations and recommendations of both Mr. Tomasini and Mr. Slatkin are touching the core of the tectonic shifts in the D&I field. I find this discussion significant not only because they point out flaws in an otherwise perceived flawless process but also because they change the perspective of success from process imparity to equity in terms of the results.

Among the central arguments explaining the poor results related to race is that, due to economic reasons, many people of color will tend to have less access to high-quality musical education and have fewer role models to serve as a source of motivation. Other arguments suggest that blind audition is not entirely blind as some collateral information, such CV details in which symphonies a candidate played before or even familiarity with how a particular internal candidate performs, can disclose their identity.

To ensure diversity equity and to guaranty, the orchestras genuinely represent their communities, both authors pr

actically recommend that it is time to lift the screen and end blind auditions.

A key premise is that the level of musicians reaching the final stage of the audition process in major orchestras is, by now, very high across the board and, in many cases, virtually indistinguishable. As such, orchestras should pursue diversity actively by considering it in the selection process.

The bold position behind this advice is that when there are hardly any differences between candidates, it is right to move past performance and consider diversity as a tie-breaker. For this to happen- diversity needs to be made visible and blind screening needs to end.

To complement their recommend

ation for ending blind auditions, the authors also advocate less controversial initiatives. Among others, strengthening the Black and Latinos talent pipeline by supporting music education and mentorship of less privileged groups, so there will be more people of color candidates in future auditions.

Naturally, each approach will have its supporters and adversaries, and you will have your reaction to it when it comes to applying it in your organization. Whatever your initial reaction to it, it is still worthwhile considering the pros and cons of addressing candidates’ diversity as a visible parameter in your people management processes.

In specific, I recommend reflecting on three key questions:

  1. What advantages and limitations do you see in your current D&I approach? / What were your achievements so far, and where do you have an opportunity to do better?

  2. What aspect of diversity your find most challenging to address, and how may a more visible approach to managing diversity help promote positive change?

  3. What people management practices would you consider adjusting to make your organization more even diverse?

I trust your answers to these questions will help you find the right approach to continue promoting D&I at your organization.

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