Quota-based hiring: a divisive necessity or a harmful compromise?

An interview with Dr. Brooke A. Gazdag, Trainer, Speaker, Author and Professor of Management at Kuehne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany.

With quotas, it’s about the whole package. It’s an interconnected eco-system of policies, practices, and process.

For our readers, could you please introduce yourself?


I’m an organizational psychologist by training focusing on leadership, negotiation, and diversity and inclusion in my teaching, speaking, and research. After graduating in 2012, I moved to Munich, where I first really heard anything about quotas as a real solution for promoting greater representation of women. Coming from the United States, I was familiar with affirmative action, that is the policies that favor individuals belonging to disadvantaged or underrepresented groups, but this was the first time I had encounter a country actually debating a implementing a quota to help promote more women into leadership positions.

And from there you developed your interest in studying quotas, which you published on in 2016. Could you provide us with a snapshot of the main findings from your research paper, "Diverse and just? The role of quota-based selection policies on organizational outcomes"?


Absolutely! So, in our study with a representative sample of 140 working professionals, we wanted to see how potential employees felt when they learned that a company uses a quota system to hire people, whether based on gender or international background, and compared their reactions to a control condition with no such policy. We found out that when job seekers simply hear about either quota without much context, they tend to see the company in a less favorable light. It’s like they’re wondering, “is the hiring process really fair here?” But it’s important to note, our study was a bit limited – we didn’t provide the bigger picture of why the company might be using quotas. Nonetheless, companies who used quotas were rated to have less fair hiring procedures, which then made participants think they would be less supported at this organization, find the organization less attractive, and ultimately, be less likely to apply.

How do these quota-based systems try to make the hiring process fairer? And what was the general feeling about these systems around 2016?


The main idea behind quotas is to help level the playing field. Think of it as giving a leg up to groups who’ve historically been left out, like having more women in leadership roles. By 2016, the legislation that was being debated when I arrived in Germany had been passed and companies were using these quotas to support selecting more women into leadership positions, but, as my study showed, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. While the intent is good, there can be doubts about the fairness of this approach.

Your study discussed some possible downsides of quota-based hiring. Can you break this down for our readers?


Sure thing. Imagine you’re job hunting and come across a company that says, “We’re using quotas to support underrepresented groups in our hiring.” Without more information, you might wonder, “Does this mean they’re not hiring the best person for the job?” Our study showed that just telling potential hires about quotas can make them question the company’s fairness. But, if a company explains their bigger commitment to fairness and diversity, that might change the reaction – although not something we tackled ourselves. 

How do you think companies can navigate these tricky waters of appearing fair yet promoting diversity?


It’s a balancing act and certainly not a silver bullet solution to promoting more equal representation. While quotas aim to promote diversity, companies need to communicate better on many levels. It’s not just about saying, “We have quotas.” They should also share stories of diverse employees, talk about programs they have in place, and show that they truly value everyone. People value authenticity, and a genuine commitment to fairness and diversity will resonate. Even my own interest in inclusion developed out of understanding a more holistic approach is needed to make a lasting impact.

So, are there any unintended results from focusing too much on these quotas?


It’s possible. If companies only focus on quotas and ignore other aspects of diversity, they risk creating an environment where diversity is just for show – like they’re just checking a box. The key is genuine inclusivity, not just ticking boxes. But that’s a topic for another study!

How has the discussion and implementation and/or reception of quota-based selection policies in companies changed since 2016?


Eventually, the debate resulted in quite a few countries implementing quotas for corporate boards including Germany and France. This was huge and while Norway had already paved the way in 2005 for listed companies, they are raising the bar again for a 40% quota this year for large and mid-size private firms. However, this is getting tricky because while the proportion of women on corporate boards is now at 20% in Norway, up from 15%, it is still shy of the 40% mandate, which is leading to some impatience on progress toward this goal. Furthermore, both the academic community and industry has highlighted the tension between implementing quotas to correct historic imbalances and its potential to undermine meritocracy. Even my own view of quota-based policies has become more nuanced: While I agree that policy and incentives can be an effective tool for reducing underrepresentation, it may be rather a stop-gap solution that allows us to avoid addressing more systemic aspects of discrimination and underrepresentation. 

Looking ahead, what do you believe will be the most critical factors influencing the success and effectiveness of diversity quotas and quota-based selection policies in the years to come?


It’s about the whole package. A federally mandated quota is not going to have the intended effect if the organizations aren’t serious about developing and maintaining a culture of inclusion. Since my research on the quota, I have been working on developing a learning framework to help people navigate the inherent paradoxes in inclusion and identifying how micro-inclusive practices (e.g., gender fair language) impact downstream support for broader diversity initiatives. In other words, its an interconnected eco-system of policies, practices, and process. 

Thank you! It’s been interesting to hear about your original work and how it’s evolved since. Looking forward to hearing more about what you’re working on next!


Only a pleasure. It’s crucial we keep this conversation going to create truly inclusive workspaces.

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