On Episode 71 of the Talent and Growth Podcast we sat down with Alia Khattab, who is the Director of Talent Acquisition at ServiceNow, where she leads all of sales hiring across EMBA. She is also the diversity hiring pillar lead in the region as well. She shared valuable insights into the importance of diversity in hiring for your organisation.  

How good or bad a place do you think we’re in right now when it comes to diversity hiring, and the importance businesses are placing on this? 

I appreciate the question, but I don’t think it is a matter of how good or bad of a place we are. It’s ‘where are you on that journey?’ Because it is an ongoing journey, there is no end destination. So where are you? What’s the level of maturity and understanding? But most importantly, how committed are you on that journey? There’s no black and white answers when it comes to dismantling systemic racism or gender inequity. It’s about really planting the seeds in your organisation to hopefully create long lasting change and impact. 

Where does the responsibility lie when it comes to hiring inclusively?  

So when it comes to hiring, my philosophy, personally, hiring is the recruiter’s responsibility, but it’s the hiring manager who is accountable. There’s a slight difference, so talent acquisition cannot do it on its own. When it comes to a diversity programme, my recommendation would be to work with your HR business partner, your DNI specialist, and the business because there needs to be a common understanding and common purpose. Now, we should not underestimate the power that TA actually has in increasing representation, enabling and educating hiring managers. So in short the answer’s no, TA cannot do it on its own, but they can actually play a critical role.  

I’m going to give you some some examples, to illustrate the fact that there’s been a push since 2020 when most businesses were under pressure from employees who wanted more representation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. When I say TA cannot do it on its own, let’s also not underestimate the power that some leaders have. One of our senior sales directors, who attends one of the biggest LGBTQ job fairs in Berlin every year. He’s made two hires out of this job fair, hiring on competencies, which shows that everyone can play a role. When there’s a will, there’s a way, but I agree there needs to be a common understanding. Leaders also have an incredible power to make change happen.  

How do businesses make sure that they’re pushing diversity hiring for the right reason? 

I’m going to be a bit controversial now. If you ask the hiring manager why they want to increase the number of women or people of colour in their team, you’ll probably still get two or three different answers. I don’t know about your experience, but in mine some leaders will say, ‘it’s the right thing to do’. Other leaders might say, ‘I need to increase representation earlier, I only have white men on my team’. Before even thinking about pushing a diversity hiring strategy you need to bring everyone around to what the hiring philosophy of your organisation is. At ServiceNow inclusive hiring is one of the core pillars of our hiring philosophy. So how do we provide a meaningful experience for everyone? How do we engage? Most importantly, how do we assess based on personas and competencies and how we try to mitigate the bias? As with anything, that purpose needs to be shared in almost every single conversation. I think there’s a rule that says if you’re leading change, you have to say the same thing at least six times, or seven times, ‘this is always going back to the hiring philosophy’. I will say 99.9% of people have the right intention, but there is a risk of falling into tokenism and saying ‘we absolutely need the woman. We absolutely need an underrepresented and untapped talent on the team.’ The risk is that you take away the long term objective, which is why you’re hiring a diverse team, which is an opportunity for you to build a high performing team that will bring different perspectives and backgrounds, and this is key to building a healthy organisation.  

How can businesses retain diverse talent once they’ve been hired? 

That’s the biggest question. For us the answer is in our strategy. We actually never look at the hiring ratio as an isolated data, we always compare it with the workforce mix and how that percentage has evolved. It goes back to having that cross functional approach when it comes to diversity hiring. As a TA team, we don’t have the power to control attrition. However, what we can do is increase representation. At ServiceNow, we’re not just increasing hiring, we are also comparing this percentage with a workforce mix. I wouldn’t say that because the attrition is spiking you shouldn’t increase representation. When it comes to attrition there might be some trends that you can identify, but there’s also the macro environment where we know that most businesses and in particular in the US where attrition for sales reps in the tech industry has reached 30 to 40%. It’s the great reshuffle. I’m hoping that we are starting to have the great stabilisation and not a recession, but there’s a lot of elements that we can’t predict. Looking at attrition without its context can also be counterproductive.  

Ultimately what we want to do through our work is increase the representation. But the North Star is to give everyone access to the same opportunities, and that goes way beyond hiring and into promotion cycles. You need to look at your internal movement as well as your hiring policies. Ask yourself ‘are we promoting the more confident one as opposed to the most competent one?’ What’s interesting at ServiceNow is that I was promoted as a first line manager last year. When I did my first performance review with the team, I had people coming up to me, warning me about biases, saying ‘are you sure about this person, are you aware of those affinity biases when you think about promotion?’ That actually made me think because yes, I do have bias, like anyone, and it did help me to be challenged like that. So for us, the question is are we building an organisation that gives everyone access to the same opportunities, regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. We have a powerful role, and this is only the very first step on that journey. 

If we’re going to diversify our talent pipeline, how and why do businesses need to rethink their view of talent? 

Someone I’m a big fan of is Joan Williams, who studied race and gender relations in the workplace for the last 30 years. I think she actually studied over 100 organisations. There’s a lot of great findings in her research around the notion of talent, which can be highly biassed. Now what does that even mean? Talent? Let’s think about that definition. Now, the research shows that when we interview, we think that past experience is going to be a predicator to future performance. Well, it isn’t, actually, so let’s spend time to dismantle what that notion of talent is. We all always encourage leaders to challenge that notion. We’ve taken a methodical approach, actually, in our company, so we have defined personas based on job level and job role. We have a clear persona for sales and we know the type of behaviour that you need to display in order to perform in your role. Those personas are aiming at mitigating biases, because no personas says you have to work for a competitor. There’s nothing in the persona that says that you have to come from the tech industries. However, they do say that you have to be a great orchestrator and you have to work cross functionally, and you have to rally a matrix team around you. By defining those personas, we have actually embedded those in how we assess, attract and retain talent. That’s a great way to rethink how you look at talent.  

Now, another example you can give, is that if you work in the tech industry, we just have a tendency to just to hire within the industry, because we think it’s a shortcut, and we believe that people will ramp quicker. If you have an example of what I call a non conventional hire, that hire often turns out to be a top performer. Sometimes it’s also the power of storytelling.  Data will help manage everything that talent. You can say ‘X person in this team actually didn’t come from the SAS industry, but they’re one of the top performers, so let’s bring that back to the personas.’ Ask yourself what are the core behavioural competencies you want to assess? And let’s try not to focus too much on previous employers or even education. That’s how you effectively assess talent.  

To hear more about how to improve your company’s culture, listen to the full episode of The Talent & Growth Podcast here. 

On Talent & Growth we speak to talent leaders about the challenges they face and their solutions for attraction and retention. If you’re interested in hearing about how companies are building a more diverse talent pool, how you can attract top people from the big players, ways to create a more inclusive interview process or learn about the latest and greatest automation software to make your life easier, then this is the podcast for you.