How White Hiring Managers Can Support Racial Equity at Work — Part 2/10: It's Who You Know That Matters

Tl;dr —

  • A commitment to promoting racial diversity in our companies and institutions is qualitatively different from making a commitment to racial equity.
  • True racial diversity — the achievement of a fully representative community of racial identities in a given institution — is difficult to achieve. But it’s only a prerequisite for the pursuit of racial equity.
  • By 2050, our greatest institutions will have won primarily because they engaged head-on in the work of promoting racial justice as a core component of their mission. Racial equity will be measured and compared between top companies like any other key performance indicator.
  • Racial injustice and frustration are perpetuated within our companies because we invest in diversity talks and employee affinity group initiatives without empowering our hiring managers to pursue innovative strategies and systems for promoting concrete racial equity goals, beginning with the very systems that bring people into their organization — their hiring processes.
  • Hiring for racial equity isn’t special hiring. It’s good hiring practice that requires a new mindset.
  • If you want to hire for racial equity build a recruiting process that: 1) creates at least three sustainable partnerships with organizations that are dedicated to serving populations that are underrepresented in your talent pool, 2) along with candidate skills and experience, track and ensure the mix of racial diversity of in your candidate pool stays high throughout your sourcing and screening processes, and 3) if you are growing and don’t have a diverse set of hiring managers or recruiting staff, hire in-house or out-sourced recruiters who identify with the underrepresented racial groups in your candidate pools.

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Diversity is Just the First Step

Human resources professionals are some of the most dynamic, caring, insightful, and creative people I know. They get into their jobs for all the right reasons. They know how to manage and develop people. They are adept at wrestling with reams of compliance documentation in one hour of their day while in the next navigating emotionally fraught conversations with fellow employees about anything from changes in their health insurance policies to coworker relationships to payroll fiascoes.

Which is why it pains me to see HR professionals get left holding the bag for one of the most pervasive yet straightforward leadership problems of our 21st-century economy — the intense lack of racial and gender equity within our companies and institutions.

For sure, there are approaches to recruiting, hiring, and employee engagement that are 1) sustaining — or even expanding— social inequality in America and 2) costing the American economy and individual companies hundreds of billions of dollars in productivity every year. But a lack of racial diversity or wage inequality isn’t just a hiring problem in our economy. It’s a systems problem that is perpetuated by a false equivalency:

A commitment to promoting racial diversity in our companies and institutions is qualitatively different from making a commitment to racial equity.

A commitment to diversity alone becomes a numbers game, a fruitless effort to get the right mix of race or gender or sexual orientation into one room and call it all fair.

Committing to racial diversity alone is an attempt to fight injustice with magical ratios that don’t exist. True diversity — a complete representation of racial, religious, gender, age, sexual orientation, and all other forms of identity that form the fabric of our households and communities in one institution— is only a prerequisite for the pursuit of racial equity.

That’s exactly what racial equity is, a pursuit. Racial equity is an ongoing process of bending an organization’s values, practices, and decision-making processes towards real empathy — not the kind of empathy you read about in an MBA leadership course but the kind that shifts whose perspective and lived experience hold real power and credibility in your organization.

Participating in the work of racial equity in the United States is important because leaders of institutions of all kinds agree that diversity and inclusion are one of the preeminent drivers of their successPlus — major key alert! — racial bias and injustice represent perhaps the most significant challenges to the United States’ ability to stem social inequality, mend its social fabric, and sustain its democratic republic.

Consequently, it’s my belief that the places we go to work — the places where we spend the vast majority of our adult lives — are the best places to fully commit ourselves to the pursuit of racial equity just as we would provide a profitable product or service. Besides, the two go hand in hand.

Avoiding the Numbers Game

It’s critical to note from the outset that striving for racial equity in the workplace goes far beyond the raw mathematics that diversity initiatives so often devolve into. As I mentioned in the first post of this series, when companies commit to seeking racial equity in their organization, they are holding themselves accountable to a set of standards that will transform their organization from top to bottom. Companies that engage in the work of racial equity will eventually be faced with the stark reality that commitment requires. They will need to reexamine and change some of their core operations, their talent acquisition strategies, their HR management practices, and aspects of their workplace culture that have existed for decades.

Still, when the first-half of the 21st century is finished, our greatest institutions will have won primarily because they engaged head-on in the work of promoting racial justice as a core component of their mission. Racial equity will be measured and compared among top companies like any other key performance indicator.

How can I be so sure? Well, for one, committing to the work of racial equity — not just racial diversity but creating the right context for diverse people to work well together — has been shown to get positive business results. (See the first article in this series for more details.)

Second, America is no longer a majority White-Christian nation. Our demographics are shifting at a brisk pace, and so by the sheer force of math our companies will have to follow suit. But — like my high school Geometry teacher once told me — math will only take you so far., kid

Lastly, with massive gaps in educational opportunity, income and wealth between racial groups, our economy is swaying under the imbalance of a skills gap that is often divided along lines of race and socioeconomic status. As our education sector seeks to innovate and create solutions for its own challenges, our business leaders will need to work with the labor pool they have available to them. This will require companies to fully commit to the responsibility of training and developing their own labor force to take on roles many employers say such workers are not prepared for.

How? Well, breakthrough workforce development organizations like Year Up,YouthBuild, and Jobs for the Future have already proven that thousands of unemployed and underemployed adults — who lack higher education credentials and are underrepresented in industries like IT, Finance, Technology, and Construction — can take on many of the entry-level and middle-skills rolls those employers so often say they can’t find talent for. Many young professionals accomplish this feat with less than a year of formalized training and internship opportunities.

So pursuing racial equity gets great business results, and is a foregone prerequisite for companies hoping to survive the next few decades of America’s changing demographics and rapidly shifting economic climate. What’s the problem? Why aren’t more people on board?

The problem is that racial equity is not the product of soaring identity statements or associating one’s “brand” with more diverse audiences through slick marketing tactics. In other words, it requires a sustained commitment to pursuing racial justice, which requires attention, which requires time and resources. A commitment to racial equity requires a sustained and radical commitment to doing the little things right in your organization, to making difficult business decisions that might seemingly run counter to your companies priorities and traditional business cycles. Racial equity might require you to rethink every policy that touches your employees— from talent acquisition to long-term employee engagement.

Why all the change? Because racial injustice perpetuated in the workplace isn’t the result of oblivious leaders who fail to acknowledge a lack of diversity among their staff or egregious leaders who simply don’t care.

Racial injustice is perpetuated within our companies because so many of our leaders will invest in diversity talks and/or employee affinity group initiatives without empowering their top HR people and hiring managers to pursue innovative strategies and systems for promoting concrete racial equity goals, beginning with the very systems that bring people into their organization--their hiring processes.

Fortunately, HR provides the best launching pad from which companies can begin to develop a plan to step up to their commitment to racial equity and improve their productivity in the process. The field is filled with wonderfully thoughtful process people and empathy experts. So, let’s set them free and give them a new directive!

Perspective Changes Process Changes Outcomes

I want to talk about a few basic steps for how you can build a recruiting strategy that accomplishes the prerequisite of creating a racially representative and diverse organization. But if you’ll allow me to take us on a small detour, I’d first like to examine the kind of mindset that is required to successfully build a team of diverse talent, and how this state of mind is connected to the ways we both value and nurture human potential in the everyday lives.

I began my professional career as a special education teacher in Boston. Both my parents were teachers and so I had developed some deeply ingrained biases as to what education was really all about by the time I showed up for teacher training. Initially, I had assumed that great teaching was some heroic combination of phenomenal content delivery and motivational speaking— something like a Stand and Deliver movie playing on repeat.

But during teacher training, one of my more grizzled professors hit me with the following precept,

“Special education isn’t special. It’s just great teaching.”

I wrote the remarks down word for word in my notebook. They confused me at first but stuck with me. I eventually cut-and-taped the adage from my course notebook to the inside of my curriculum design notebook during my first-year of teaching as a reminder. Eventually that quote — in combination with exposure to more accomplished and experienced colleagues— began to shift my viewpoint on what great teaching actually looked like.

For years I had assumed that the most important skill for teacher was essentially to be superhuman — to manage a classroom as if it were a cult of personality, to convince students that they could leap high school math course catalogs in a single year, and, possibly, help Lou Diamond Phillips realize his aptitude for higher order derivatives.

But what my professors and colleagues eventually helped me understand was that great teaching was far more complex than I could ever imagine from outside the classroom, and that is was not so much a performance as it was a scientific process.

In order to serve the students who had struggled the most in school, special education teachers needed to be slightly obsessed with 1) responding to the details of how their students actually learned and 2) having a deep understanding of their students’ existing skill sets. Great teachers weren’t very concerned with how students would react to one entertaining wrinkle in their lesson plan or a mid-period pep talk. The best teachers I worked with remained focused on results in the classroom but somehow always found the time and remained flexible enough to bend and form their lessons to the shape of each individual student. They were like expert copilots parachuting between planes in mid-flight, dropping in to gently set a course toward a previously unknown destination for each student.

My most talented colleagues weren’t Oscar-winners, they were human potential hackers. They could use a small battery of questions to get a deep understanding of how developed their students’ skills actually were. They would put students with different strengths in groups together to help them coach one another toward solutions to word problems in science class. They would allow students who had difficulties with pronunciation to immerse themselves in reading by providing them with audiobooks to match their text. The teachers I eventually tried to model were the patient experimenters and tinkerers who 1) provided students with the opportunity to redefine their own abilities by using compatible learning tools and 2) rewarded their choices to challenge themselves intellectually.

This discrepancy between the skillful, differentiating teacher and a “Stand and Deliver” teacher is instructive because teachers are major gate-keepers to educational — and even career — opportunities. If a teacher is focused on how a student receives their teaching performance they will only understand one dimension how that student thinks and learns. If the student doesn’t respond well to their method, an adherent of the popularized “Stand and Deliver” style of instruction might just determine that such a student isn’t capable of learning the material or simply doesn’t want to. That becomes the student's destiny and a ticket to stagnation.

And, in massive urban public education settings like the one where I began my teaching career, the norm looks a lot like this: one teacher standing in front of a class for 30 minutes at a clip and delivering the same lesson to 25 or so students through an oral presentation.

Such an instructor is being asked to deliver a curriculum not to any student in particular but toward some imaginary average of all minds that have been assigned to that classroom at that particular time. In many schools, this norm forces classroom teachers to adjust their aim — instruction becomes less about learning and more like an attempt at exposure.

In other words, I was lucky enough to be taught to 1) reject teaching to the average, 2) value the variety of student intelligence, and 3) constantly prepare myself to diversify my own modes of instruction to suit those unique learning styles of my students. Then, and only then, would I see results come and my students shine. In other words, my teaching philosophy needed to change, so my teaching process could change, so I could add more diversity in my instructional style, which in turn led to better results for my unique students.

Much in the same way, hiring managers are a kind of gatekeeper and assessor of capability. For them, it’s nearly impossible to hire for racial equity if they are asked to recruit solely through established norms and tools that already underrepresent communities of color and seek some imagined “ideal candidate”.

This might come as a surprise but there are also no specific prayers nor magical incantations nor mumbling of jargon like “We’re harnessing the power of big data,” that will get you a sufficiently racially diverse response to a simple job posting.

That’s because hiring for racial equity isn’t a special kind of hiring. It’s just a series of strategic hiring processes that place a higher value on meeting underrepresented candidates where they can be found.

So, here are three recommended steps you can take to begin differentiating your recruiting and screening process for racial equity:

I. Hiring for racial equity means affording your recruitment professionals the time and space to get creative about their approach to building at least three (3) sustainable pipelines to qualified, racially underrepresented candidates in your most critical open positions.

Do not begin the process of recruiting for racially underrepresented candidates if you have not made connections with at least three (3) partners who represent viable pipelines to such talent. You need redundancies in your networks to consistently pull candidates with particular backgrounds into your organization. If you want to hire Ivy League graduates would you recruit from Brown? Well, is your talent pool under-representing qualified black candidates? If so, the best places to start building talent partnerships with black professionals aren’t difficult to find. They include Black Alumni Associations, HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Career Offices, Black fraternity & sorority chapters, the Urban League, the National Society of Black Engineers, Predominantly Black churches and houses of worship, leadership programs for people of color. Many of these organizations already have people working or volunteering in a career resource capacity who are ready to help hiring managers who want to engage their network of potential candidates. Boom! Now go find your three partners.

II. At every stage of your sourcing and screening process, weight the racial diversity of your entire talent pool more heavily than your mix of collegiate pedigree or the “quality” of resumes you have in your ATS.

Until you reach the interview phase, there is only one other data point that has greater predictive impact on how you candidate pool could potentially affect your organization’s performance than racial and gender diversity — that’s aggregate skill. Google has already proven that your college, GPA, and even resume are poor indicators of how well you will perform during your tenure with your new company. It’s time to start favoring what you know will get you results in an equally qualified applicant pool.

III. For the most powerful effects on your candidate pool, hire either in-house or out-sourced recruiters who a representative of the kinds of racial diversity you wish to see on your staff.

If your organization is predominantly led by white people, is growing beyond 12 team members (and/or growing beyond two full-time senior managers), and is struggle to create partnerships that supply diverse talent to job openings (Goal #1 above), you must create a diverse recruiting team if hope to build a racially diverse and representative organization.

Let’s face facts, as Chris Rock so astutely put, “We live in a time when Dr. King and Mr. Mandela’s dreams are coming true … All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend.” More to Rock’s point, we still live in a time where three-quarters of white Americans do not have a non-white friend and where two-thirds of black Americans do not have any non-black friends.

If 80% of hires today are secured through networking, and 70% of all the jobs we will hold have come through some sort of connection to family or friends, then who do you think white hiring managers are more likely to “run into” and select?

It's not explicit racism that serves to sustain racial disparities in the workplace, it’s favoritism serving as a proxy for an expedient and reliable hiring process.

Now, it is also true that employee referrals are perceived as the #1 source for high-quality hires, but it is also true that they also make up only 6% of all applicants. That number is so small largely because, with the pervasiveness of internet-enabled job posting sites and applicant tracking software, a far greater volume of candidates (many of whom are not qualified for the position in question) can apply to any job in a few clicks.

But how much value is being lost — and how much racial diversity is being stifled — by companies failing to build racially diverse pools of qualified candidates for each job opening they create? Answer: Hundreds of billions.

Hiring for racial equity requires organizations to put strategic talent acquisition practices into place beyond traditional means.

Like great teachers, great hiring managers require the time and the professional creativity to develop new processes for ensuring their candidate pools are fully representative of the racial diversity their organizations wish to embody.

If you want to build the best and most diverse possible team across all your open positions,

Once you have the great pool of diverse talent you want to interview, that’s where things get even more interesting ... 

in Chapter 3 of this series.

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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 3/10! — CC

P.P.S. - Did you enjoy this post? Cool, thanks! You can also follow my writing on Medium, get in touch with via email at chris@chrisconroy.site, and connect with me on LinkedInTwitterFacebookInstagram and YouTube. Hope to talk with you soon!