07/01/2014 02:31 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

Avoiding the Clonal Effect

The ongoing diversity problem in the tech industry was brought to light recently by Google's disclosure of its employment statistics (only 30 percent female and 2 percent African American). While some commenters blame the tech culture specifically, my experience with organizations across many industries has led me to another conclusion: there are unconscious motivations which lead managers to hire a homogenous workforce, and the only way to avoid the damage this creates in our organizations is to become conscious of the factors which color our thinking and re-examine our conclusions about potential employees.

What I have named "the clonal effect" is the tendency of individuals, groups, and organizations to replicate--or clone--themselves or others that are familiar to them wherever they have an opportunity to do so.

Every time someone is to be hired or promoted and there is a pool of available candidates, there are two criteria that enter into play. One is competence to do the required job; the other is the fit between the individual to be hired and the rest of the staff and organization. This is where the clonal effect takes over. The "fit" deals with the comfort level the employer or employees feel with the person being hired or promoted. "Fit" is in the eyes of the beholder. When people are discriminated against because of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, class, or ethnic origin during the hiring process, the rationalization is often couched in terms of imagined fit.

An employer hires someone with whom he or she has a fair chance of getting along, of communicating well, and of sharing basic values such as work ethics, standards of quality, imagination, precision, punctuality, dress code, humor, politics, and even leisure activities. The list is endless, and so are the possible prejudices. Whom do we trust? Those we can understand, those who are most predictable to us. And who are they? Those who are most like ourselves. Studies have shown that the more managers perceive people to be "like themselves," the more they tend to like them.

Just as individuals tend to replicate themselves, so do groups and organizations. The tendency is to replace lost members with people who have similar characteristics or to add people who would not change the dynamics of the usual communication patterns too much. This comes out of the desire for comfort which is found with the person who comes from a similar background, for we are more trusting of those we can readily identify with. Prejudice, of course, is not in the acknowledgment of a difference, but in the preference of one over the other, and the discrimination is in acting upon this preference.

The clonal effect does not only exist in the workplace. Think about who your friends are. Are the majority from a similar background, sharing similar values? The clonal effect also inserts itself unconsciously in who we vote for, who we believe represents us. We are suspicious of the "different," the "other." If the type isn't our type, it's not comfortable.

It is easy to see why this unconscious tendency leads to injustice in employment practices, but looking closer it is possible to see why it weakens organizations. Workforce diversity stimulates new ways of thinking by disrupting the "this is the way we have always done it" mentality. It encourages creativity by inviting fresh perspectives, and problems can be tackled with new vigor. Most of all, it makes way for the subtle skills the "outsiders" may bring to the culture. Life experiences and personal histories teach problem-solving and communication skills which are difficult to quantify on a resume, but which broaden and advance the discussion. Hiring a diverse team requires consciously allocating more value on collecting a wide range of qualities and less on psychological or social comfort.

In order to become conscious of the clonal effect--in order to have more choices--we need to become aware of how we react to people. If we wish to stop the unconscious tendency to reproduce ourselves, then we must actively look for the discomfort of diversity, the challenge of change, the potential for disagreement. Then and only then will the women, the blacks, the whites, the Latinos, the Asians, the people of different religions and various ethnic backgrounds, the handicapped, the too young, the too old, the too skinny or too fat, the oddly dressed, and those with strange accents have a chance to join in so that all of us can contribute our differences and be enriched by them.