The pros and cons of Diversity and Inclusion quotas

Employees working together around a table in a modern office

Could implementing quotas be a quick-fix to meeting diversity goals? Perhaps they are an imperfect, but necessary, supporting measure? Or are quotas a counterproductive hindrance to genuine, lasting diversity and inclusion?

At recent Six Degrees Executive Diversity and Inclusion events in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, we heard from expert panellists who shared their experiences on the subject.

Six Degrees Queensland Director, Kristan De Sousa, drew attention to the varied stages companies are at as they progress towards creating more inclusive workplaces. And with some organisations significantly further down the track than others in terms of D&I, it’s unsurprising that diversity quotas were raised as a hot topic up at the event.

Let’s start with the positives. Firstly, there are occasions when quotas really are necessary to get an organisation’s diverse representation up to speed. Organic change is slow-going and quotas (along with D&I-related KPIs) can really help to speed up the process by holding people accountable for that change.  Lance Hockridge, ex CEO and Managing Director at Aurizon, recalled that in 2010, women made up less than 10 per cent of the organisation. “From a business point of view, I believe that first and foremost, [effecting change is] about having clear, unequivocal goals.” And so, Lance insured that diversity and inclusion goals were built into all of the executive remuneration in the organisation, including achieving 30 per cent female representation by the close of the decade.

Secondly, diverse talent really is out there. Setting targets or quotas to hire more women or people from the LGBTQ+ community, diverse backgrounds and different ethnicities can be just the nudge hiring managers need to get out there and commit to finding them. Quotas needn’t mean indiscriminately hiring underqualified talent for the sake of it. Instead, it’s an opportunity to focus on finding diverse, new talent who can add value and unique insights to the organisation.

Finally, quotas are a way of safe-guarding the recruitment process from any non-believers in the organisation and compelling them to take diversity seriously. Lance Hockridge believes that “we have got to be interventionists” and was quick to remind us that the law does permit this. One process he implemented required hiring managers to have C-suite sign-off in order to hire someone from a non-diverse pool, which, as he recalls, “Sure as hell focussed attention!”

Of course, a mandate to achieve diversity doesn’t mean harvesting a culture of true believers, which is why many would argue quotas do more harm than good. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Resistant people are not (necessarily) bad people

The most resistant naysayers within an organisation could very well end up being the biggest diversity champions. But enforcing rigid quotas and KPIs is a sure-fire way to create resentment and resistance. No one is perfect and no one is born “woke” but education, conversation and patience will help those employees who are innately good, if a little uninformed, to come on board with diversity initiatives. Andrea Pearman, CEO of Inclusive Australia board member explains that it's very important to make sure that “you are having, and including them, in conversations, getting their perspective and understanding why they perceive [diversity initiatives] in that way.”

Minority groups don’t want to be patronised

“Employees don’t want to feel as though their skills and capabilities are undervalued because we're trying to make quota,” argues Andrea Pearman. “We certainly don't want a situation where people feel like they only got the job because they’re meeting a target.” This can seem demeaning and creates a divide between so-called “diversity hires” and those who believe they were hired solely on merit.

Forcing change doesn’t force inclusivity

Daniel Mottau, Region Manager Learning Development at Zendesk, argued that quotas do not tackle the real issue, which is the inequality itself. “A lot of organisations engage with quotas but they are not necessarily engaging with the community to change the fundamental problem, which is a lack of opportunity and the biases and the challenges [that minority groups face].” Cameron McIntyre, Managing Director & CEO of Carsales.com, agreed: “We didn’t think the business would get behind [quotas] because they’re just numbers. We completely avoided it because we thought it was false and wasn’t going to solve the problem from the inside out.”

There should be no end-goal

Setting quotas and targets implies that there is an end goal for diversity and inclusion. In reality, organisations are continually learning, evolving and finding ways to truly include and integrate their workforce. Andrea saw an opportunity to build a program that moved far beyond quotas and instead “inspired Australians to value difference, not tolerate it.” She explained that, despite quotas, “there are a lot of our people who still don't feel respected and valued as much as they should – there is more work to be done.” 

Ultimately, as Kristan highlighted, “diversity and inclusion isn't a problem that you can just tick off and solve. It's about embarking on a journey to continuously improve our position.” 

Talk to our D&I expert at Six Degrees Executive about whether Diversity quotas would be appropriate for your organisation.