How White Hiring Managers Can Support Racial Equity at Work — Part 1/10: Don’t Be Afraid to Set Goals & Experiment

In 2004, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan published a paper, the title of which was itself nearly as jarring as its conclusions, Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?

Don’t let the titillating title fool you, this was no click bait article engineered for a social media news feed. Bertrand is now a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Business and is a Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Center for Economic Policy Research, and the Institute for the Study of Labor. Mullainathan is a 2002 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award recipient, a long-time professor at Harvard, and his latest research focuses on using machine learning to better understand human behavior, just to name a few accomplishments. In other words, this was as serious as labor market research gets.

Through a series of field experiments, the economists sent nearly 5,000 resumes out to over 1,300 open positions in the Boston and Chicago labor markets. One-half of these resumes contained markers of high-quality applicants — employment advantages such as additional years of professional experience, fewer holes in their employment history, having an e-mail address listed, having completed some certification degree, possessing foreign language skills, or having been awarded some honor. The remaining half were of lesser quality.

Bertrand and Mullainathan typically submitted four resumes for each job, two high-quality and two low-quality resumes. But they also randomly assigned “African-American-sounding names” to the resumes. (Whether or not a name was “African-American-sounding” was determined through a statistical analysis of birth records in Massachusetts between 1974 and 1979 and a randomized survey of Chicagoans asking them to determine — among other qualities — which names they felt were distinctively white or black.) African-American-sounding names were randomly assigned to one of the high-quality resumes and one of the low-quality resumes submitted to each job.

Here were the results:

  • Applicants with White names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback whereas applicants with African-American names need to send about 15 resumes.
  • A White name yielded as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.
  • Having a higher-quality resume had a much smaller effect on increasing callback rates African-Americans. In other words, the gap between equally-qualified Whites and African Americans actually widens when jobs become more valuable and desired.
  • Living in wealthier, more educated, or more uniformly white neighborhoods increased callback rates, but less so for African Americans when compared to Whites.
  • The gap in callback rates was consistent across all industries, occupations and employer sizes.

Here’s the takeaway if you are a white hiring manager in a predominantly white organization who wants to promote diversity: If you want to promote equitable racial opportunity in your workplace, then it’s important for you to review and, where necessary, revamp your recruiting and hiring process from start to finish.

Why? Because status quo recruiting and hiring operations will exclude at least 50% of qualified candidates of color — 50% of the people who could be making your organization a more thoughtful, more enriching, more effective place to work.

Racial bias doesn’t just make it harder for a person of color to get a job. It causes companies to under-represent the communities where they operate and customer bases they serve, creating a huge blind spot and impacting their long-term success.

This article is the beginning of a series of posts on how to White hiring managers can use their influence to shake up status quo hiring methods that leave talented applicants off their radar and weaken their organizations. We’ll begin with the ten most important.

1. Set data-driven racial diversity goals for both hiring, promoting and recruiting that seek to improve an outcome that does NOT relate to directly to race.

Okay, so this out-of-the-gate strategy is the HR/company culture equivalent of pulling a rope-a-dope.

Why? Because of legal and political pressures, knowing that hiring for racial diversity is the right thing to do isn’t enough. You need to ensure that your HR practices are legal and that your staff will get it.

Organizations of all kinds need a baseline from which we can measure our improvement, a place we can begin to take a clean, honest look at how we are performing against our goals and whether those goals are improving our bottom line.

The challenge with commitments to equal opportunity and diversity is that, because of the tremendous political and legal smack down on affirmative action programs and quotas, most organizations eschew explicitly quantitative goals for building a diverse staff. But, we all know the adage, “What gets measured, gets done,” has an inverse: What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done.

So let’s put this one to bed from the beginning. It is not illegal to set numerical diversity goals in the United States. What is illegal is for your racial diversity goal to have no other expressed goal than promoting diversity.

Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, whose 1978 majority opinion in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke is now the most widely cited case in American law used to litigate against affirmative action programs and racial quotas, offers to the following conclusions on private diversity programs and race:

  1. “Preferring members of any one group for no reason other than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake. This the Constitution forbids.” (Powell opinion, Section 4A)
  2. “The fourth goal asserted by petitioner is the attainment of a diverse student body. This clearly is a constitutionally permissible…” (Powell opinion, Section 4D)

So, yes, it is legal for private institutions to set numerical goals for racial diversity in the United States, so long as:

  1. those goals are not pursuing racial balance for its own sake
  2. those goals are not fixed
  3. those goals are not mandatory

You are not doing anything illegal or unconstitutional by attempting to build a business or venture that is diverse across racial and ethnic characteristics if you’re expressed goal for doing so is to ensure something other than racial diversity — like the success of your business or organization!

Setting a diversity goal to drive a specific positive business outcome also helps with buy-in from other members of your staff who might be confused as to why you even need to set a diversity goal at all.

“Hey, we aren’t being sued for discrimination. No one has said we’ve violated EOEC rules. We’re not being investigated by or U.S. Office of Civil Rights. We have (two) people of color on our staff. So, why do we need to set diversity targets?”

Well, the question of whether you are subjectively “being fair” or following the law doesn’t have to be -- and shouldn't be -- the impetus for setting racial diversity goals.

Companies in the top 25% for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry averages. So treating your recruiting and staff diversity numbers seriously is just good business practice, akin to the importance of an accountant ensuring cash flows are positive.

Fair? We don’t need your stinkin’ fair. We got ruh-sults.

So, you need not fear setting quantitative diversity goals, folks. Goal aren’t quotas. Their business operations that drive success.

Plus, by a) hiring your staff based on merit and b) creating a workplace that represents your customers and community authentically, you are fighting discrimination and not practicing it. You’re also creating bottom-line business value from an underutilized strategy.

Here’s an example of what one version of a diversity hiring goal -- legal in all 50 states -- might look like:

“Acme Inc. will hire and promote a representative cohort of Black senior managers in our Operations Department by the end of Q1 FY2018, because we predict that a fully representative cohort of Black managers (25% of all managers) will account for at least 20% increase in employee retention and 10% in overall productivity.”

You’ve set a quantitative target without leaving the recruiting and promotion of diversity disconnected from an organizational goal. You’ve also phrased it as an experimental approach, which implies that the pursuit of the goal will be tracked and revisited at a specific time.

Now you can be free to know your diversity numbers cold — across all dimensions — because you don’t need to set your diversity goals for the sake of themselves. You just need to hire qualified diverse pools of talent. And guess, what?

We’ll discuss how to do that in Part 2.

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P.S. - Thanks so much for reading this article and starting this series with me. If you liked this article and topic, it would mean a ton to me and the folks I work with if you shared this post with a friend who could use it and commented with your feedback. I’m always excited to learn more about what people have experienced or have to say about these issues. Plus, I’m always game for a good discussion. Thanks so much and I look forward to seeing you back for Part 2/10! — CC

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