Scott Ayotte and Inclusive Talent Acquisition Through Behavior Change

Scott Ayotte, the Director of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Equity at Grand Valley State University joins us to share his expertise on the transtheoretical model of behavior change as it relates to talent acquisition. We discuss: – Organizational structures and how behavior change models are used – The phases of the transtheoretical model of behavior change – Creating cultural and structural environments that are welcoming for diverse communities – The steps to creating an equitable workplace – Strategy vs. tactics for talent acquisition – Scott’s whitepaper, “Inclusive Cultures and Talent Acquisition” – Contact Scott at or

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Scott Ayotte transcript

Susan Cooper  0:00 
Welcome to Inclusion Catalyst with your hosts, Mickey Desai Susan Cooper, we invite diversity leaders to the table to deconstruct complex social justice issues and showcase the best inclusion practices in our workplaces and our communities.

Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Inclusion Catalyst. I’m your host Susan Cooper. Normally our my co host, Mickey Desai would be here with us, but he is not with us today. He is here with us in spirit, however. Today, our guest is Scott Ayotte. He is the Director of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Equity at Grand Valley State University. Welcome, Scott.

Scott Ayotte  0:39 
Thank you, Susan. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Susan Cooper  0:41 
You know, we’ve been trying to have this conversation for a while so I’m really happy to have you here. Your role at Grand Valley State is I’ll let you talk about it yourself. But basically your goal is to foster an inclusive environment for faculty, staff and students. But you’re in HR, right?

Scott Ayotte  1:01 
Actually no. So my office is within the Division of Inclusion and Equity, which is outside of the human resources function at the university. We do partner with human resources very heavily. They’re an integral part of the work that we do, but we are independent of them.

Susan Cooper  1:20 
Oh, okay, great. Well, I think that’s great that that department even exists, right? I think one of the reasons that we wanted to talk to you is because of a piece that you’ve written about behavior change theory, which is fascinating to me, because outside of this podcast in my professional life, I work at a creative marketing company, and we specialize in behavior change marketing. So it’s really interesting for me to read your piece about behavior change and how it relates to recruiting talent for your organization. And I’ve never even thought about using the same trans-theoretical model when it comes to recruiting talent and recruiting people to join onto any organization. So I thought I thought what you wrote was fascinating. So I’d love to talk about it and let you sort of introduce what the piece is and why you wrote it.

Scott Ayotte  2:13 
Sure, yeah, no, I’m happy to do that. And I just a quick disclaimer, I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, or a PhD researcher in that regard. You know, my training, I went to law school. My background is predominantly corporate human resources and inclusion and diversity counseling. But, what I was looking at was trying to understand how organizations behave as a relates to talent acquisition, and talent management. When we think about, you know, how organizations behave. There’s a lot of similarities to how individuals behave. both individuals and organizations have consistent patterns of behavior that they’re accustomed to. A lot of times it’s manifested in sentiments like, Well, we’ve always done things this way. Why would we want to change? A couple of similarities, both individuals as well as organizations, whenever they’re beginning new initiatives, there’s a tendency not to say that there’s a universal generalization, but there is a tendency to begin at the action stage. To begin thinking about strategies to begin to think about taking a tactical approach. And then also when you think about the way organizations and individuals behave similarly. There’s a lot of focus on what the end goal is. And sometimes the journey, the planning to get there is oftentimes a secondary or tertiary thought, but thinking about the way organizations behave and how individuals behave. I was working with a colleague of mine who happens to be an industrial organizational psychologist, around thinking about organizational behavior, behavior, change. And they discovered this model called the trans-theoretical model of behavior change. Now it was really started and founded in the late 1970s by two researchers from the University of Rhode Island, Dr. James Prochaska, and Dr. Carlo DiClemente. And their model basically establishes that individuals if they want to change behavior and have long lasting change, it’s generally not done overnight. And it’s generally not done by way of immediate intervention. That long lasting behavior change typically occurs through a continuous intentional and cyclical process. So what they have is laid out five different phases or stages of change, that an individual will generally go through in order to have long lasting, sustained behavior change. Kind of going from, it’s not just an intervention, but it’s now just a lifestyle, if you will, and thinking about that. How organizations behave, there’s a definitely a need or demand, or the recognition that as the workforce is changing as consumers and customer demographics are changing as well, organizations have an imperative to be able to meet that change in a way that is going to provide for the outcomes that they want. Specifically, as we think about talent acquisition, there’s the recognition that we have a changing workforce, we want our workforce to reflect our consumers. We want it to be more globally diverse and inclusive. So how do we begin to create an environment and prepare an organization to be able to not only acquire diverse talent from a global perspective, but also retain engage and develop that talent too, which is where a lot of the focus around my research has kind of been.

Susan Cooper  5:56 
That’s great. So my understanding it, you know, I don’t know that everybody knows about this behavior change theory. But my understanding is that is that there’s different phases that people go through as they’re going along the continuum of trying to make a decision or take an action. They don’t start with wanting to take the action. They start with not even being aware that an action needs to be taken. So would you mind maybe just briefly, just sort of touching on each of the phases?

Scott Ayotte  6:24 
Sure. So the different phases on the trans-theoretical model are the pre contemplation stage, which is effectively I don’t even know that there’s a problem. There’s the contemplation stage where we recognize there is a problem, but we’re not even sure if we want to need to or should make a change, or even how to do that. The third stage is what’s called preparation. And that’s where we understand that we know that there’s a problem we need to solve. So now we begin to think about and plan out how do we begin to create an action plan to tackle this? Following preparation, we have what’s called the action stage. This is where an individual will begin those initiatives, those different actions, those changes. And then followed by what’s called the maintenance stage, which is focusing around sustainable behavior. And how do we ensure that these changes that we’ve made have really long lasting effects and implications. And we think about individuals or organizations that are engaging in this type of work, you know, there’s a, I think there’s a tendency for organizations to want to jump to the, to the action stage. It’s human nature, I would posit and a lot of the analogies that I’ll make is looking at health and wellness. So think about the idea of crash dieting around the holiday time. It’s January 1, we’ve had a lot of really you know, enjoyable time of family indulgent and very good food. And then we realize, okay, well maybe things are, you know, we stepped on the scale and realized, okay, well, maybe I need to, you know, start getting back into shape so your resolution mode kicks in I’m going to go to the gym eight times a day for seven days a week, I’m going to start eating kale and quinoa. And that’s going to be my nutritional intake, for the most part are the choices I’ll make. And I’m going to be in shape and in two months, and we find that, you know, these kinds of changes aren’t always sustainable. A lot of times you know, the results, were getting aren’t as quick to show up as we want it to. That we realized that we are miserable, adopting this new change of pace. And so what ends up happening is more often than not, well why do we even want to do this anymore? Is it really worth it even as you look at a gym memberships and attrition of individuals that will partake and regular working out, there’s a noticeable drop off from into February and into March from an increased high of participants in January. We’ll thinking about how organizations behave, looking at the idea Talent Acquisition, if we have a need to acquire diverse talent, if we’re a homogeneous organization, there’s sometimes is a tendency. And again, I’m using that as just not a broad generalization. There’s a tendency to take the approach of Well, why don’t we start posting our job advertisements and publications that we haven’t done before? Why don’t we reach out to different cultural associations to try to bring in more talent when we think about publishing and then putting our job postings in different languages to attract more talent that way? These are tactical approaches which are no good initiatives and good actions to take but the what’s lacking sometimes is there being an underlying strategy and even asking the fundamental question of why are we doing this. For us if the goal looking at individual behavior change for health and wellness, if you’ve never worked out a day in your life if you aren’t familiar with nutrition, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to then look at Michael Phelps or, or some other Olympian athlete and say, Well, I don’t know, I’ll just follow what their diet plan is what their workout plan is, and expect the same results. Some organizations take the same approach too. I don’t know what, know what the necessary right step is. But let’s figure out who’s doing this really well and adopt the same things. And hopefully, we’ll get the same responses.

Susan Cooper  10:30 
Right. So what you’re saying is, you’ve really got to take small, simple steps to make it really a cohesive change that’s going to be sustainable. You can’t just jump in and be Michael Phelps on your first day. You get your membership for New Year’s Day, and then you think you’re going to be Michael Phelps in a week. It’s not going to happen. Right?

Scott Ayotte  10:50 
I wouldn’t agree with that.

Susan Cooper  10:52 
So how do most organizations approach talent acquisition in that way? When they think that they can just like Come on, let’s be diverse tomorrow. How do you think they approach that?

Scott Ayotte  11:05 
So, you know, I think, you know, there are a number of different approaches that organizations take. And I don’t think that there’s one true universal way that organizations all behave became a talent acquisition. Some organizations are incredibly forward thinking and based upon their industry, they may have an easier experience recruiting diverse talent, other industries, not only based on the industry, but even geographic location to may have more difficult time. So I don’t know if there’s a common approach to doing so. But I think when it comes to looking at organizations and where they’re struggling with, I think there does have a there’s a tendency for organizations to jump into the well let’s start posting our positions in different locations. Let’s start you know, reaching out to the local ethnic business chambers. And in trying to really look at like an action oriented approach without really asking ourselves, well, what is it that we want to accomplish? Why does this really matter for us? And how do we then think about what the long game is I look at talent acquisition, from a inclusion and diversity lens as being similar to examine a concept of aquarium versus a turf area. Both are effectively you know, a place to house living things. But you can take a bunch of goldfish, for example, and you can put them in the terrarium all you want, but the question is, how long are they necessarily going to last in that environment? So I think the first step is really being able to, for an organization to take a step back, and rather than thinking about what are those external steps that we’re going to take, let’s first look at inclusiveness from the inside out. Acknowledging do we even know we have an issue and so what is our understanding of what that issue is and then being able to identify not only establishing the case for inclusiveness, but then even furthermore, applying that and aligning it with our central mission, vision, values our why effectively.

Susan Cooper  13:12 
Right, the culture and the purpose of the organization needs to be appealing to talent that if you know, even if you may want to have diverse talent pool, but if your internal culture and your purpose is not appealing to those people, then they’re not going to be interested in coming to work for you.

Scott Ayotte  13:31 
I would I would agree. Absolutely.

Susan Cooper  13:34 
So how do you get someone to adopt a different lifestyle and how do you get organizations to start to take those first steps?

Scott Ayotte  13:45 
Well, you know, I think a lot of it is looking at, you know, the premise. First off that any kind of change if it’s going to be behavioral change, especially it’s going to be because the organization recognize that that this is something that matters to them that they genuinely want to do that I’m a believer that I don’t focus on changing individuals or organizations beliefs so much as we’re looking at trying to change behavior. And usually with any kind of behavior change, it’s motivated by one of two things either pain or gain. If we choose to ignore a problem as it relates to, let’s say, inclusivity or exclusivity in an organization, if we choose to ignore this, what is going to be the negative outcomes that are going to impact the workforce that we have? Are we going to be able to serve the customers that we are doing? If you think about in a higher education context? Are we going to be able to provide students with an environment for them to learn grow, be their best selves and prepare them to be global citizens? If we choose not to do that, are we going to be putting ourselves at a disadvantage, or looking at it from the gain perspective? We’re going to be the quantifiable benefits by adopting an inclusive environment. For an organization as we think about not only employee satisfaction and retention of talent, but also being able to prepare for changing demographics of our consumers, I think organizations at their goal, at their front end goal, thinking of talent acquisition, they want to make sure that they have not only acquiring talent that’s going to be high quality, that we’ll be able to grow and develop, but also making sure that they can provide an exceptional experience for candidates who are being considered for opportunities with them. I think, in terms of trying to focus on or supporting individuals or organizations that want to adopt different behaviors, I think the first step is being able to really make that case and make it very personal to the organization.

Susan Cooper  15:48 
Yeah, I think I know the answer to this question, but I’m gonna ask it anyway because I want to hear your answer to it. Is the goal of a truly diverse applicant screening to be colorblind?

Scott Ayotte  15:59 
Great question. So in my opinion, and again, this is just my opinion. But I would say that the goal is not to be completely colorblind in any kind of applicant screening process. I think the goal here is to be very mindful of where our screening processes or hiring processes may have barriers to entry. Especially as it relates to having any kind of adverse impact for individuals of different backgrounds or underrepresented populations. And then how can we adjust and improve our processes to begin to mitigate for those adverse impacts mitigate for our potential biases as much as we can, not so much creating just an equal experience across the board, but even more so creating an equitable one as it relates to meeting the candidate where they’re at and being able to provide for a culturally intelligent experience as it relates to how we’re acquiring things talent wise. It’s kind of like the distinction between the golden rule and the Platinum rule, which, if you’re familiar with the golden rule: treat everyone the way I want to be treated, versus the Platinum rule: will treat everyone the way they want to be treated. So I think it’s really taking that candidate centered approach. And then also obviously making sure that we’re following relevant employment laws and regulations as well.

Susan Cooper  17:24 
So I love how you talked about the difference between equality and equitability? Because I think there’s a lot of people have a misconception of what the difference is between those two things. So I wonder if you could give me an example of the difference with a candidate that is being treated equally, but they’re not be being treated equitably?

Scott Ayotte  17:47 
 Sure. So I think, you know, we think about our candidate processes. There are there are standards that individuals or organizations will create. We think about those barriers to entry, thinking about job qualifications, duties, responsibilities, even the wording of positions in which there could potentially be biased language or even the way we treat candidates could we potentially be discouraging candidates from applying for opportunities? I think a lot of that plays out when we think about the language that we use in our job postings. A lot of times individuals, that is the for job seekers, that is the first point of contact that they will have with an organization by reading a job description on their career site, was we think about ways in which the language that we use can have an impact. I think it’s looking at intention versus impact as well. The question comes up, is the language that we’re using does it have or could it have a discriminatory impact? Or could it even discourage individuals to apply for each job so thinking about things in in a job description like relationship building. So even a phrase like managing relationships versus nurturing relationships can have a distinct impact when it comes to male or female candidates choosing to apply for a role like that. As we think about the wording in a position, things like having an energetic self starter, we’re seeking an ambitious, emerging professional, someone who is mature and dedicated, that very well could have an age bias or discourage individuals on the basis of age for applying for positions and new things we think about the candidate experience in and of itself. I mean, thinking about the from a lens of inclusion relating to disability. So we think about bringing individuals in to an interview if they happen to be an individual uses a wheelchair, for example, or would need another assistive device are we being mindful of providing for spaces in which they would feel included? Looking at just the physical space alone, we may treat everyone the same as it relates to they will come on site for an interview. They will meet the same individuals, they will be in the same room. But if that room itself is difficult to get into. If it’s not accessible, if there isn’t spaces that are going to be made to accommodate for adaptive devices or assistive devices, that very well could be a, in my opinion, an inequitable experience, even though we’re treating all candidates equally,

Susan Cooper  20:27 
Yeah, I think that so many people use a lot of that terminology kind of flippantly because it appeals to them, but they don’t think of the impact that it has.

Scott Ayotte  20:39 
You know, and thinking about, you know, companies that are coming up with you know, more creative job titles. Instead of saying a financial analyst, we’re going to call them a finance ninja or, or a data guru, which, granted those terms may seem a bit more contemporary may seem a little bit more kind of mainstream or, you know, have more of a pop culture. connotation, but even in the wording of some of those positions it very well could have cultural implications as well.

Susan Cooper  21:07 
Mm hmm. Absolutely. So what are some tactics that that organizations could use to find diverse talent?

Scott Ayotte  21:16 
You know, I think when it comes to finding diverse talent, there’s, I actually did a Google search for diversity recruiting about an hour ago, and it came up with about 151 million website hits, according to Google, approximately. I think that when it comes to looking at what are those, you know, leading practices out there, I think there’s no shortage of doing that. But I think, you know, in my opinion, there are some basic tenants that really can guide a lot of the selection processes, and recruiting processes that organizations can really take advantage of. I think the first step is making sure that we’re taking a data driven approach when we think about data. Add not only candidate data until acquisition, but being able to ask ourselves, you know, what is the data telling us when it comes to the availability of qualified professionals in a particular field? If we compare what our numbers are, let’s say for finance and accounting, and we think about our demographics internally, how’s that compared to the external environment? If we were to reflect that against census data, I’m looking at website data even to as we ran website analytics on our career site. Do we know for a given period of time where these individuals who visited our site are from geographically, if we look at it by IP address, can we have a sense in terms of what other websites directed them to us? And then also, were there any specific career sites that that led them to find our opportunities? And then being able to then delve a little bit further and say Did any of the resources that we’ve used as relates to different public or outreach or whatever have you? Did it result in any candidates that got an interview or that received an offer? I think even looking at data relating to what is an attraction factor for our company, or for organization, asking the individuals that you’ve hired, why are you in this profession? What attracted you to our organization in particular? And then being able to utilize that information as it relates to might we might that change or impact the way we market our positions or the different the different avenues for social media marketing, for example? I think being able to look at bias from the mentality of, you know, we might not be able to manage our bias, but can we be mindful of our bias and where bias typically comes into the screening process as we talked about before. Thinking about our job advertisement language, then also the interview experience as well. We think about some of the areas of bias. You mentioned about having color blind applications. Well, I think even asking ourselves the information that we are receiving and throughout the candidate process or from the candidates, is it necessarily relevant for us, you know, things that very well could bias individual’s grade point average, for example. The college or university they attended, their home address, even their last name, all of which could provide information that may be true or untrue, but could feed into a bias for individuals that are screening. I’m a big believer that the, you know, including something like your home address, for example, even looking at zip code that very well could be indicative of certain areas of a community that might have greater concentration of diversity, when in actuality the only thing you should determine is where you get your pizza from, frankly.

Susan Cooper  24:51 
So we’re, we’re running short on time. So I wanted to ask you if there’s anything like if you could leave our listeners with a call to action. What’s one thing that you would like people to do in their organizations to start thinking about these theories and how they should move forward with their plans for having a more diverse workforce?

Scott Ayotte  25:11 
You know, I think ultimately, I would encourage anyone involved in this work to, to really understand, truly understand the distinction between what is a strategy and what is the tactic. Really thinking about changing cultures or creating inclusive cultures, asking the question, what is it we ultimately want to accomplish? And then how do we then begin to create a process that will achieve the results that we want. If you have a process or, or policies in place that are not getting the results that you want if they’re, you’re effectively dealing with broken processes, I would encourage individuals to stop wasting time or stop spending time on trying to fix what doesn’t already work, and create a new process that not only ensures the results that you want, but makes the existing one already obsolete. Really taking a strategic approach asking the question, what do we want to accomplish? And then being able to design tactics that will naturally support that overall strategy.

Susan Cooper  26:10 
Absolutely. So how can people reach you if they want to find out more about the work that you’re doing? Or if they want to read the your whitepaper called Inclusive Cultures and Talent Acquisition?

Scott Ayotte  26:22 
Sure. So the white paper has not been out published yet. But I’m going to make that available through Scholar Works. But if individuals want to get a hold of me, they’re welcome to reach me via email or connecting with me on LinkedIn. Just as a quick disclaimer, I want to just be mindful to say that, you know, my work my thoughts and views that you know, we’re talking about today, they are my own. It’s not necessarily reflecting of my institution. But yeah, I’d be more than happy to engage in with anyone on this topic.

Susan Cooper  26:57 
Great. Can you or can you just tell our listeners your email address.

Scott Ayotte  27:01 
Sure my email address is

Susan Cooper  27:11 
Okay, great. And we will link your LinkedIn profile in our show notes. So listeners, just check out our show notes on our website, and we will link to your LinkedIn profile so that people can find you. Thank you so much for joining us, Scott. This has been just a fascinating conversation.

Scott Ayotte  27:29 
Well, thank you very much for the invitation to speak Susan. It’s been really a privilege for me.

Susan Cooper  27:34 
Great and next time Mickey will be back maybe we can do this again when Mickey is here. And we can we can go into more depth sometime later about all the specifics of each phase of behavior change.

Scott Ayotte  27:49 
Thank you.

Susan Cooper  27:50 
Thank you. And that’s it for this episode of inclusion catalyst. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and share with your friends and colleagues.