Diversity hiring might not be that hard.

The past month’s news brought yet another cautionary tale about what happens when companies deprioritize diversity. While we all claim that diversity matters, we put it on the backburner while we focus on revenue growth and product innovation. However, a new report from Lightspeed Ventures about startup recruiting trends suggests that hiring a diverse team might be easier than we think.

And what's more, it can start with something you’ll find at almost every tech company, across all growth stages: the referral program.

One third of startup hires come from referral programs

Referral programs are the second most common of all human resource programs, only after new hire on-boarding, according to a the Lightspeed Venture Partners report on startup recruiting trends. 79% of all startups invest in referral programs, and 1 out of every 3 hires come from a referral.

Referral programs are the most pivotal element of a startup recruiting effort – if executed well. At their best, referral programs are magical. One day a position opens and the next day the perfect candidate appears, because networks act like matchmakers to help candidates and companies find the best fit. At their worst, referral programs end up in a mess of untracked data, with candidates slipping through the cracks, and a whole lot of room for subconscious bias that hurts the outcome.

At a diverse company, referrals will be diverse, but if a company isn’t diverse, the referrals aren’t likely to be.

The reality of diversity: most diverse candidates come from outbound sourcing and employee referrals

The same Lightspeed Ventures report also found that startups across all growth stages source the majority of their diverse hires through a combination of employee referral programs, and good, old-fashioned cold outreach.

The report also reveals that only 4 percent of early stage and 6 percent of expansion stage startups have a recruiter dedicated to diversity hiring, while late stage startups do much better, with 44 percent having a dedicated diversity recruiter. This means that the top source of diverse candidates is unlikely to receive the investment and resources it requires to be successful. Referral programs, on the other hand, receive significant attention and investment, and can do a decent job identifying diverse candidates. As the popularity of referral programs increases (LinkedIn, 2016), companies have an opportunity to rely on them as a source of diversity. 

Four tactics we can try to hire more diverse teams

1. Set a diversity hiring goal

As we learned from Pinterest last year, setting a diversity goal doesn’t mean we will hit it, but it does send an important signal that diversity matters.

2. Find the Non-Homogenous Referrals

When we think of who to refer for a role, most of us scan our brains on the drive home or think about it while waiting in line for coffee. We end up identifying people that are top of mind. Objective, technology-powered suggestions can surface people we may not think about naturally.

3. Don’t let culture be a safe haven for unconscious bias

Culture is often seen as a way to reinforce our values. It is also an opportunity to expand our networks. If you have a process that grades culture fit, grade on clear, objective values so that culture isn't misused as an umbrella for discrimination. You might be surprised how many people you can find in your company network that grade highly on your core values, but come from different backgrounds.

4. Include your social and professional networks

According to the LinkedIn 2016 report, Social and Professional networks account for about as many hires as employee referrals. In addition, 40% of referrals originate from sources outside your company. If you want referrals that don't look and smell like your existing employees, you can get them by asking people who aren’t on your team but are still rooting for your company: your community.

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