Quota-based DEI is missing the mark

A friend of mine is an accountant in a 50-ish people non-profit organization. They recently hired a DEI director who put some quota requirement for hiring more minority. My friend complained honestly that they failed to meet the quota, not because they don’t prefer a more diversified environment but because lacking enough fitting candidates.

Later I read the recent Google/Timnit drama. In one of revealed emails, Timnit mentioned:

There is no incentive to hire 39% women: your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people…

In the email, Timnit complained that the quota (39%) was not met. But is it really because of not enough incentive?


DEI is a social problem; not a hiring one

It’s probably obvious that DEI is a bigger social problem which cannot be fixed by just hiring quota. A less asked question is whether hiring quota is helpful at all to improve the DEI situation? In my friend’s case, the answer seems to be “no”. I suspect this answer may apply to a lot of other organizations as well.

Job-hunting only happens after one’s early development (family, community, education, culture, etc.). If a social group tend to end up (or not end up) in a profession because of similar early development, then statistically speaking for this profession it is more likely to find hiring candidates from this social group. E.g. Asian parents tend to value education a lot more than other social groups and are more willing to “push” their kids for that. So Asian kids tend to have higher academic scores. So if you have job openings seeking people with high academic scores, Asians will probably be the dominant social group. Hiring quota cannot change the human resource distribution on the market. If the distribution is diversified, a hiring quota for DEI doesn’t seem to be necessary at all.

Many organizations indeed put a lot of effort into influencing people’s early development to encourage certain social groups to think more openly, and provide them more options. Assuming such effort is effective (which is also doubtful), it takes time, sometimes even multiple generations, to see results. We all need a little bit more patience.

Natural laws don’t care about political correctness

Setting DEI hiring quota is actually harmful if fairness is jeopardized.

The nature of recruiting is a process of “discriminating” - you choose people possess certain skills over those who don’t.

If there is strong incentive (e.g. promotion) for DEI but really you can’t find enough candidates that meet the DEI criteria, what would you do? I know I would diversify my hiring criteria to meet the DEI needs. In reality, it probably means lower my hiring bar - a seed for unfairness is planted. As the unfairness grows, the people on the other side (non-DEI targets) will become the group being discriminated and get demoralized. It will for sure hurt businesses internally.

When fairness is at risk, conflicts between social groups deepen. Now Non-DEI targets are driven to be discriminating because they think the other group are unfairly getting the opportunities. It also hurts those in the DEI targets who want to fairly win the opportunities, because no matter how hard they work on it someone could always argue that they are less qualified from double standards.

For complex social problems, direct intervention is rarely the solution. Hiring quota to DEI is like saying “don’t be sad” to a sad person. The emotion is not under total control. Same as crowd social behaviors. They don’t answer the calls of political correctness.

A cynical interpretation

If I can figure this out, many others would have already done so, including the many people who work on DEI. Then why quota-based DEI hiring is still a thing? Easiness.

Organizations need DEI marketing to appear as socially-responsible, to attract human resources, and to avoid potential problems. What’s easier than showing how many minority are hired? For individuals who work on DEI, what’s an easier way to demonstrate quarterly achievements?


My friend’s company ended up hiring a minority. But they had to fire her in a couple of months because of unacceptable performance. Well, the quota was indeed met!