It was TV gold this week as National’s new leader, Todd Muller, announced his frontbench. In what was accurately described by Newshub as a “shemozzle“, when pressed on diversity, a nervous Nikki Kaye highlighted that Paul Goldsmith was “obviously Ngāti Porou”. The problem is, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Goldsmith isn’t actually Māori, and his only claim to being so is that his Grandad liked to shag them. This was the start of what would be a very tough first day in the new job for Muller (pronounced Mull-er not Müller in case we think he’s a Nazi presumably). His new lineup means that although displaying more gender diversity that previous regimes, National is left with a token Paula Bennett sitting in unlucky 13 as the mouthpiece and representative for all things Māori. Muller defended his position, saying the party makes decisions based “on merit” rather than ethnicity. Indeed, National have long held the view of “best man (and now woman) for the job” and would recoil in disgust at the mere mention of positive discrimination. This thinking is steeped in logic, and has resonated with voters over the years. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that for many of my formative years, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. I mean, would you let a less capable person do a job purely based on the colour of their skin in order to fill a quota? Don’t talk silly.
Well I now think I was wrong. And here’s why.
Recruitment is a simple business. We sit in a comparatively small office and we all do pretty much the same thing. Aside from some admin support (which our bosses sadly keep to a minimum), we call clients to sell to them, will call candidates to sell to them, and then we call clients to sell candidates to them. If we pull off all three of these things off, we get paid. Contingent recruitment is so fucking ridiculous, that it takes a certain type of person to put up with it, and a certain type of person again to be any good at it. We are a rare breed, who all have more in common than we’d care to admit. For a small recruitment firm, diversity of thought and opinion is not required. If you took the top biller in a recruitment office, cloned them, and then sacked everyone else, you would have a successful recruitment firm. A crap environment, but you’d make cash. As an industry, we have many faults, but we really are a meritocracy. If you bill more money you get paid more money. We do not care one iota for the ethnicity, gender, or sexuality of a top biller. I have never heard a recruitment manager even mention the ethnicity of their top performer. In our tiny little world, Muller’s view that success is based on merit is totally appropriate. I am very much a product of this environment, so perhaps it’s little wonder why I never really “got”diversity.
Big businesses are different. Big business, like a country, are not made up of one type of person doing one specific role. They’re closer akin to an ecosystem. Take Spark, Westpac, Air New Zealand, whoever. From the CEO to the security team who patrol the premises at night, it takes teamwork to make the dream work. If you were to, as we did above, clone a call centre worker at Spark, and put them in every role, the business would fail. Likewise, if you were to clone the CEO and do the same, you’d be equally fucked. Businesses of any scale need diversity in all forms to thrive and flourish. And this isn’t just my usual leftie clap-trap. Big businesses rely on a mix of full-time, part-time, high-salaried, minimum-waged, male and female, black, white, gay, straight, old and young employees to get a multitude of different tasks done. I’m yet to find one that doesn’t.
And this is where the “based on merit” argument shits its pants. As a white male, I cannot profess to know what it is like to experience life as a Māori woman. I can study all I like, gaining a Masters in Māori history or gender studies, but my learnings will remain academic. If I really want to make business or policy decisions that affect a group other than my own, I need to take such heavy advice from someone who has lead that life, that it is no longer my view but theirs. Anything else is the white man telling the “natives” not to bone doggy-style. And this is why diversity at the top is so important. For too long, we have overvalued academic and professional experience, and undervalued life experience. In the same way that truly successful people truly know themselves, a businesses’ leadership team must understand what they are and what makes their people tick. And as I think Todd Muller may find out, this takes a leadership team representative of those who they serve. If we have two candidates interviewing for a Finance Director role, one being a man and one being a woman, and if all things are equal apart from gender, who should we hire? Well, if your exec team is like most and predominately male, then we should hire the woman. If we want to understand the drivers and needs and experiences of our female employees, then a woman would be better placed to do this. Sorry fellas. In fact, I’d go so far to say that I’d rather see a lesser qualified yet highly capable woman in the role. What you may lose in individual performance you’ll see back in truly understanding and engaging with your whole business.
As for Recruiters, we can’t let ourselves off the hook either. I have never actually witnessed a recruiter displaying prejudice of their own volition. Seriously. What I do see, and am guilty of myself, is recruiting as per the prejudices of my client. If we are not the Apartheid Government, we’re certainly the Robben Island prison guard. We may not care for the colour of a candidates skin, but our desire to make the placement sees us kowtow to the Victorian mores of our clients. So if we’re part of the problem, logic follows that we can be part of the solution. In an ideal world, it’d be like The Power of One, as us recruiters unite to fight prejudiced hiring managers in a boxing ring (or by refusing to work with them). Realistically that isn’t going to happen. Perhaps we can settle on a collective effort to champion that underdog candidate who you know would smash the job, regardless of their age, gender, or ethnicity. That’d be a start.
I’ll be back with some actual gags in couple of weeks time, but in the meantime, keep washing them hands.