Diversity: Reversing Discriminatory Hiring Practices (Part II of II)

[This blog post first appeared on LinkedIn in July 2020]

In my last post, I shared some of the history of how Black people were excluded from white collar jobs. It is important, I believe, to understand that discrimination against Black people is deeply embedded in corporate America. If your company does not have many Black people in professional roles, especially if your company is near an area where many Black people live, it is likely because your hiring practices actively exclude African Americans.

This can be reversed.

I’m proposing a blueprint that companies can use to root out hiring discrimination, improve hiring racial minorities, and improve hiring practices overall. Most of these ideas are fairly routine, though incredibly underused, best practices -- what I would consider good recruiting hygiene.

Note: Keep in mind that I am intentionally focusing on hiring African Americans, because, in addition to my personal interest, I think the most egregious, intentional, harmful discriminatory practices have befallen Black people. I also believe that in solving for this particular discrimination, companies will make great strides in diversity overall, and make even greater strides toward building a high-performing recruiting organization.

1. Get Fluent. I dislike the word “diversity”. It is an inadequate shorthand that tends to obscure the problems companies are attempting to solve. It is especially effective at obscuring failed efforts to hire underrepresented people. Find the words to express exactly what is happening, call things what they are, be specific when articulating goals and action plans. So many companies brag about successful diversity recruiting campaigns, when they’ve only been successful hiring a more representative percentage of White women. Or bragging about big percentage gains on small numbers. Don’t get me wrong – progress is progress – but it is important to isolate and be transparent about the size and extent of the problem if you wish to address racial discrimination in your company.

Lots of leaders are “listening and learning” about racism these days. If you are indeed personally committed to better understanding systemic racism, I propose that you go beyond blog posts and racially themed (and often problematic) Hollywood movies. If you cannot discuss the tenets of Critical Race Theory, you are likely not prepared to identify and address discriminatory practices and policies in your company. Learning a new language isn’t easy. It takes practice, and often takes years to master. You might feel confused and vulnerable. But a superficial understanding of the issues will lead to superficial, ineffective solutions.

2. Decide and commit. Are you serious about eliminating discrimination in your hiring process? Are you in? Are you ready? Willing to invest resources? Do you know that it’s going to be hard and you’re going to do some things wrong? That your missteps might become public? Does your org have the stomach for this?

Now is the time to reflect on your values, as a CEO, as a board of directors, as an HR leader, as a business leader. Is it worth it? Is this important to you? Are you prepared to publicly share your action plan?

Confronting discrimination and white supremacy in your org will require a lot of energy. You will have to defend your focus on hiring one group over others. Some will accuse you of doing too little. You will have to explain when you fail. You might lose some customers, some partners, some employees and some candidates. Are you willing to make the tradeoff?

If your “business case for diversity” is that you expect diverse teams to improve the bottom line, you are doomed to fail. While it may be true that diverse teams produce better results, there are many other less risky ways to increase profits and efficiency. Businesses logically choose the path of least resistance to achieve results. Anti-discriminatory hiring is not a path of least resistance. The end results may improve the bottom line, but the strategies required to get there are not efficient. This is why so many well-intentioned efforts have failed. So throw the “diversity brings better business results” out the window. In the case of hiring African Americans, you are dismantling decades of embedded practices and attitudes. This will not be fast or cheap, and it may cost you sales or partnerships.

3. Measure and analyze. If you are embarking on this journey, you must shine a light on your shortcomings. Looking through the lens of “why didn’t we hire more Black people”, I suggest deep analysis of this data:

  • Sourcing. How diverse are our pipelines, by source? Which sources produce more African American prospects? Which methods result in more Black people in the pipeline?
  • Screening. Once a Black candidate has been reviewed, what happens? How often are they moved to the next step? How does the percentage compare to white candidates? White male candidates? What are the reasons most often given for rejecting Black candidates? How do these reasons compare to other candidates? At what stage are Black candidates rejected? Are there specific departments or leaders that reject Black candidates disproportionately?
  • Internal mobility. How many Black people have we promoted at every level? How many lateral moves? How many demotions? How do mobility rates compare by race? What happens when Black employees attempt to move in the organization?
  • Hiring criteria. Do your hiring managers and interview teams rely on clear hiring criteria to make decisions? Or is hiring criteria murky and arbitrary, determined as the process goes on, subject to mid-process changes, molded to fit candidates? Do you capture hiring criteria for every position, and study it? You probably don’t, but you should. More on this in a bit.
  • The funnel. Similar to screening metrics, understand how and when candidates drop out of your process, and at what stage and why. Looking at source:screen, screen:interview, interview:offer and offer:hire, by race, you will get closer to identifying the nature of the problem. If your pipeline starts with a proportionate number of African American candidates, but they never make it to the interview stage, something is happening during or after screening. Find out what that is by analyzing the data and collecting anecdotes from recruiters, hiring managers and candidates if possible.
  • Decisions-making. Who is being selected, and why? Who is being rejected, and why? If you aren’t collecting written feedback about candidates, don’t expect to improve hiring results. Hiring fairly, rooting out bias and discrimination requires disciplined hiring practices, including written feedback. Without documentation, without shining a light on the problem, it will be impossible to determine if decisions are made with the company’s best interests in mind.

There are plenty of other areas you could measure, especially around consistency (i.e., measuring time in stage, by race, or by tracking the steps candidates must go through, by race. Measure the number of interviews a candidate must endure, the types of assessments and take-home exercises. From years of interviewing recruiters and managers I know that interviewing is wildly inconsistent. Interviewing for similar roles vary within companies, often within departments, often the process (illegally) varies by candidate. Analyze your process to determine if Black candidates experience additional or more rigorous interviews, or are subject to additional background checks or other hurdles to get hired, and root out this discrimination.

4. Listen – deeply – to the stories. Stories about microaggressions, inconsistent treatment, policies implemented inequitably, are easy to dismiss as one-offs. HR people are not equipped to recognize discriminatory behavior, much less respond to it. If you don’t want discrimination within your company to become a viral thread that damages your employer brand, you must pay attention. Small HR departments must quickly become fluent and treat complaints seriously. Larger companies might want to consider a review board that is specially trained to listen carefully, look for patterns and suggest appropriate response and follow up actions. Anecdotal data is as critical as quantitative data. Listen to candidate feedback. Listen to recruiters and interviewers who suspect discrimination Is happening. Study and learn from EEOC complaints and settled lawsuits related to hiring. Set a zero-tolerance policy. Train and coach managers. Full transparency.

5. Ditch old-fashioned notions of “the bar.” Hiring managers, in lieu of detailed hiring criteria, like to describe a mythical standard to which they hold candidates. This vague idea of a “bar” is often used to dismiss candidates without substantiation. Candidates that don’t meet the bar, it is implied, are not smart enough. The “bar” is often spoken of in a way that suggests that it is absolute, measurable based on merit, when in reality it is subjective, rooted in bias, and can never be measured.

Like “personality” or “culture fit,” “the bar” is fraught with an inherent insider perspective that serves to protect the status quo. Often, those who resist diversity efforts resist in the name of protecting the “bar.” And we know from our implicit bias training, White interviewers are conditioned to believe that Black candidates are not as smart as white candidates, especially when the hiring criteria is undefined or unclear.

Admittedly, I have used this language throughout my recruiting career. Only recently have I thought more deeply about how this concept has been used to reject (it is used more often to reject than advance) candidates that do not meet personal ideas of a “smart” archetype that centers whiteness.

It’s time to find a better way to describe candidates who bring exceptional talent to organizations. The more we can link hiring decisions to job-related criteria, the more we can stop using fuzzy thinking to assess candidates, the less likely we are to discriminate based on superficial factors.

Instead of focusing on “raising the bar,” recruiting organizations should focus on helping hiring managers create detailed hiring criteria and corresponding assessment techniques for each open position. Hiring decisions should be rooted in observable skills and behaviors, articulated in writing and in debrief meetings and substantiated with evidence.

In fact, “the bar” should refer to the company’s disciplined approach to hiring, not to candidates. ”Raising the bar” should refer to improving the hiring process, not to some undefined, ambiguous, subjective notion of whether or not a candidate is better than an existing (often white) team member.

6. Insist on Hiring Criteria. At Recruiting Toolbox, we talk about hiring criteria a lot. We believe it is foundational to an efficient, fair interview process. Helping hiring managers set detailed criteria before you interview candidates is one of the most critical ways recruiters can improve outcomes. Not just for hiring more African Americans. Setting criteria is a path toward making the best hiring decisions for everyone, for all teams. Setting criteria in advance – and negotiating the widest possible profile – increases the size of the candidate pool and includes the widest possible set of experiences.

This sounds simple. It’s not. Does this analogy resonate with you:

If I want to make blueberry muffins*, I make a list of ingredients, I go to the store, buy the items, mix them up using specific methods, bake them and voila, I’ve got muffins. If a typical hiring manager wanted blueberry muffins, she would list a couple of ingredients, go to the store, try making the muffins, realize she was missing a few ingredients, go back to the store for more ingredients, mix some more batter, rethink whether or not she wants muffins or blueberry pancakes, pour the batter into the muffin tin, wait a while, make another batch of batter, compare the two, forget to preheat the oven. Eventually, hungry and stressed out, the manager would bake the muffins, without much confidence that they will turn out OK.

I sometimes call this “I’ll Know It When I See It” recruiting culture. Nothing is more frustrating for recruiters, yet we often do a poor job of securing hiring criteria up front. To root out inconsistencies, and to ensure that interviewers are comparing candidates to criteria (and not to other candidates, or worse, imaginary requirements or “ideal” profiles) you must do the hard work of first thinking about all of the “ingredients” before you begin interviewing. You must be certain that everyone involved in the hiring process is aligned on that criteria and employs specific methods to assess candidates against the criteria.

7. Build a ramp. You want to know the most insulting thing I hear from white colleagues in corporate America? I hear it all the time. It’s “We don’t have any diversity.” It’s often not true. Were my colleagues to look at employees in entry level or front-line jobs, often they would find many underrepresented minorities. The statement makes me cringe because it is evidence of not seeing these employees as viable candidates worthy of investment and promotion. In fact, it is evidence of not seeing these employees at all.

Talent Acquisition isn’t just the practice of hiring external talent. A holistic approach should include a robust internal mobility strategy. And that strategy shouldn’t just focus on those “hi-po” employees in mid-manager roles. To increase the diversity of the pipeline, focus on the entry level and front-line roles and build ramps to other positions where their skills and (often valuable customer) knowledge can be leveraged. Figure out the gaps or barriers that prevent people from moving up in your organization (and prevent managers from viewing front-line workers as desirable candidates) and fix it.

Note to TA/TM leaders: Strike while the iron is hot. Now is the time to secure the resources necessary to fix or upgrade your internal mobility process. Pull together a cross-functional team, including talent development, to build a pipeline of future Black leaders. Invest in education, training, mentorship – all the stuff you dream about in your HR dreams. Consider a mobility platform to help employees, recruiters and managers navigate internal opportunities and discover new skills and talent. Trust me, if your company is committed to hiring more people of color into leader-level roles, this is the best investment of time and resources your company can make!

8. Go Local. People like to live near their families. If you have difficulty attracting Black people to your area, you’ve likely considered covering relocation costs. But asking a Black professional to uproot to an area that might not be welcoming is a big ask. There has been no better time in history to propose remote work. Expand your talent pool by focusing on geographies where Black populations are higher. Geographic expansion alone, however, might not solve the problem. Some areas produce Black professionals with specific industry experience. My hometown, Detroit, for example, is home to the world’s best auto industry talent. If you’re in a different industry, you will have to do the pre-work necessary to help managers discard their idea of the perfect candidate profile and consider candidates from different industries. I’ve fought this battle and lived to tell you that it is not easy to win. Recruiters and hiring managers will have to do the work to recognize and map transferrable skills, leverage detailed job criteria to overcome the reliance on pedigree (specific schools, companies, and industries) that drives managers’ decisions.

9. Help candidates get hired. Read this Twitter thread by the Obama Foundation CTO. Then spend some time investing in candidate prep and helping African Americans gain access.

10. Train up. Should everyone in your organization have the right to interview? Or should such an important responsibility sit with managers and leaders who have a track record of inclusive hiring? Do you have a way of verifying interviewing skills, or are you simply crossing your fingers and hoping for the best?

And after training thousands of hiring managers, I am here to tell you that managers are not familiar with basic employment law. To be honest, I’ve met quite a few recruiters who don’t know the basics. I recommend brushing up on your knowledge and setting aside some time to ensure that interviewers understand the laws governing hiring decisions.

11. Squirrel away some reqs. The most valuable commodity in corporate America is the position req. Does this sound familiar? Late in Q4, managers battle it out Fight Club style, and the fortunate emerge with open positions and the ability to hire. Queue Chariots of Fire theme. Sometime in mid Q1 rumors begin floating that all unfilled reqs will be retracted. By early Q2 (this year, due to the pandemic, early March), if a manager hasn’t filled the req, it gets snatched away. So managers treat open positions like gold that they have to spend right away. They make hiring mistakes because they’re afraid of losing the open position. They focus on pedigree because they don’t want to take risks on candidates with different experience. Does this sound like a good way to run a company?

If it were left to me, I’d eliminate the req Olympics and require that in order to open a req, a hiring manager must develop thoughtful hiring criteria, think deeply about the existing team and future needs. Maybe write an Amazon-style paper justifying the need for the position (or group of positions for volume hiring), and outlining the plan to fill gaps on the team, including racial diversity. This would please the folks in finance and ensure that every position is filled thoughtfully. And it would slow things down. I’m OK with that. Speed is often used as an excuse to bypass sourcing racially diverse candidates. Instead of optimizing for speed, optimize for quality.

Oh and let’s not forget campus hiring. In September, everyone is excited to go to campus to recruit fresh talent. By February, hiring managers hide from the campus recruiters because they are unwilling to give up a precious req for fresh talent. Amirite? Fix this. Then go to campus and hire all the fresh African American students you can.

At the very least, ensure that the executive leaders reserve some reqs for opportunistic hires, that can only be used to hire racially diverse candidates. Nothing incentivizes diversity hiring like free reqs!

12. Confront the Resistance. Everything I’ve outlined above assumes that your organization wants to rid itself of discrimination and hire more African Americans. Be warned. Not everyone agrees. There are managers who prefer the status quo. Managers who believe racial stereotypes and insist that diversity “lowers the bar." They are not likely to change and will undermine your efforts. You will need a plan to address this. What are the consequences if a manager fails to hire a racially diverse team in your org? Should the manager be allowed to interview? Should they even work at your company, if their values are misaligned to the company’s values? I don’t have the answer. But deep discussions about your company’s values, expectations of hiring managers, resistance and consequences should precede any plans or strategies. You have to figure out who you are, and where you stand.

I’ll stop here before I launch into some of my bohemian, radical ideas (TA should report directly to the CEO until it’s fixed, eliminate interviewing altogether, for the next six months, only present racially diverse candidates). What I’ve shared here only scratches the surface of what can be done to improve the rates of hiring Black professionals. And if you’ve noticed, most of what I’ve proposed also improves the hiring process overall.

Not all ideas work in all organizations, and I urge you to pilot some of these before rolling out big public strategies. What are your ideas? Share in the comments below. I’d love to extend this conversation.

* I am on a quest to bake the perfect blueberry muffins. Follow me on Twitter, where I am documenting my journey and sharing the recipes