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I help organizations hire people — and watch white candidates get favored again and again

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

When you apply for a job, you’d like to think that you’re evaluated based on your skills, experience, and track record. But in a recent article published by the Harvard Business Review despairingly titled We Just Can’t Handle Diversity,” it was revealed that candidates are evaluated not solely on merit (as we often aspire and hope) but also on race/ethnicity. Interviewers frequently assessed candidates inconsistently according to race, e.g.:

The most common criteria for moving candidates from the middle to either the “yes” or the “no” pile were communication skills (referred to as “polish”), analysis of a sample business case, the math used to support that analysis, and cultural fit. But the interviewers weighed and judged those criteria differently depending on the race, ethnicity, or gender of the candidates.

Harvard Business Review

Over the years, I’ve recruited the best and brightest leaders for some of our nation’s highest-performing edtech startups, school districts, nonprofits, and charter management organizations. I’ve earned a seat at the table with boards, CEOs, and executive directors, which has allowed me to see firsthand how whiteness is advantaged, often subconsciously, in recruitment, selection, and hiring processes.

I founded Compass Talent Group, a national talent management firm that is dedicated to building diverse and inclusive leadership teams for education organizations, rooted in the belief that the most harrowing challenges faced in the education sector can be overcome with leaders who bring diverse experiences, ways of thinking, and problem-solving strategies to the table. We intentionally cultivate candidates from diverse geographies, backgrounds, sectors, and institutions who reflect and understand the communities served by our clients.

Recently, I was working on a senior level search for a national nonprofit. My partner and I built a strong talent pool — we made sure we were aligned and calibrated with our client every step of the way and got the green light on each candidate during our weekly call.

Here’s a simplified profile of one of our candidates, Naima*:

We were feeling great about our pipeline until our client hit us with:

“I noticed the pool is very diverse and I want you to know diversity is important, but quality matters most.

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the fact that diversity and quality are not mutually exclusive, or that our pool included diverse candidates who exceeded the qualifications for the role along multiple metrics: experience, skills, academics, etc. (see Naima’s profile above).

I wish that comment and insinuation were an outlier, but I’ve heard it countless times in my work. If this were simply an outlier, I’d chalk it up to a lack of cultural competence, but there’s an undeniable pattern. Certain key phrases kept recurring — “culture fit,” “quality,” and “my gut” — all-too-familiar euphemisms for the hairy mammoth in the room: race.

Meanwhile, Matt*, a white male candidate, applied (see profile below):

Although Matt had less aligned experience and fewer years of experience, and did not have an advanced degree as preferred by the client — i.e., Matt was average by many respects — he was still advanced to the final stage of the selection process alongside Naima and interviewed with the CEO.

This is typical, according to the Harvard Business Review article:

Black and Hispanic men were often seen as lacking polish and moved to the reject pile, even when they were strong in other areas, whereas white men who lacked polish were deemed coachable and kept in the running. A similar pattern emerged among men who appeared shy, nervous, or understated: Nonwhites were rejected for being unassertive, but in whites, modesty was seen as a virtue.

While Naima was ultimately hired by our client — she was the best and most qualified candidate for the role — below is a table highlighting what her interview process should’ve looked like according to the agreed-upon selection process the client, my partner, and I established versus what it became:

There are two glaring differences between the processes. Naima’s process was extended several weeks. Naima and Matt both landed interviews with the CEO of the organization, yet Matt was unquestionably less competitive than Naima and he still had a seat at the table. Even though the CEO was impressed with Naima and wanted to hire her, the hiring manager was reluctant (yet couldn’t articulate why other than stating that her “gut feels something is off”), which resulted in Naima having three additional steps in the selection process.

Naima and Matt’s case is not unique. I’ve encountered similar scenarios in which candidates of color are more credentialed, experienced, and qualified, yet they are scrutinized more than their white peers, lending credibility to the adage, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” as a person of color.

While I recognize the many barriers involved in neutralizing bias in the hiring process, I’m optimistic about organizations’ ability to adapt more inclusive practices. Here are some common challenges I’ve had with my clients, along with approaches that have worked.

Challenge 1: “There aren’t enough qualified candidates of color”

My colleagues and I have heard the pipeline excuse time and time again, most recently in regards to the tech industry’s stagnant diversity numbers, and we reject the notion that qualified candidates of color don’t exist. (See: Education Pioneers, Code2040, Surge Institute, Latinos for Education, Camelback Ventures, ImpactLab, SEO, and MLT). Instead, we suggest taking these alternative approaches:

Go beyond your network: More than 80 percent of social networks are racially homogeneous, so if you’re tapping your professional colleagues, friends, and family members, chances are you’re going to yield a candidate pool that closely resembles your own background. Our approach includes looking for talent from across the country from HBCUs, state colleges, and universities as well as Ivy League institutions, knowing talent exists in multiple academic environments.

Examine your recruitment channels: Where are you targeting your recruitment outreach and marketing efforts? If you’re tapping the same channels and expecting a different or new outcome, good luck. Instead, develop deep relationships with organizations and institutions that cultivate talent of color that may be outside of your networks. Speak to your current employees, particularly to assess the climate of your organization and encourage a diverse set of employees to solicit referrals.

Challenge 2: “Diversity is important, but…”

This seemingly innocuous statement reveals a troublesome mindset. It assumes diversity and quality are diametrically opposed and perpetuates the myth that people of color are not as capable or intelligent as others.

How to identify this mindset: Take a deep inward look and examine your unconscious bias. Psychologists at Harvard University, University of Virginia, and University of Washington developed an implicit bias test that can help you gauge where you currently stand.

How to combat this way of thinking: If you discover implicit biases for “John versus Juan” or “Jack versus Jill,” don’t despair. One option to combat implicit bias is to design a blind recruitment process in which all résumés/applications are stripped of racial/cultural and gender identifiers to ensure bias doesn’t inadvertently creep into decision-making. Another option is to hire a third-party firm that specializes in diversity and inclusion as thought partners that will actively push thinking and decisions.

Challenge 3: “Not a culture fit”

When we make decisions based on “fit” instead of competencies, experience, or skills, we’ve invited the maximum amount of subjectivity into the process. It’s important to unpack and articulate what “fit” actually means:

Being aware of similarity bias: Clients tend to feel warm and fuzzy when candidates share a similar alma mater, affiliation, hobby, etc. Often these similarities are rooted in social capital, which can favor candidates that are “in-group” or, on the flip side, disadvantage candidates that are “out-group.”

Overcoming “gut”-based decisions: We help our clients design selection tools, e.g., questions, rubrics, etc. that are measurable. It’s the difference between asking, “Tell me about yourself,” and, “Tell me about a time you led a team to success.” In the former, there’s very little structure, and the open nature of the question allows so much subjectivity that it makes it almost impossible to compare candidates, since their responses can vary widely. In the latter example, the question has a specific objective, and each candidate will share an experience in which he or she led a team to success.

Admittedly, addressing the three barriers above is not “the answer” but a step in the direction of overcoming challenges organizations face in recruiting talent of color. In case you’re wondering what happened to the nonprofit client that insisted diversity was important but quality mattered most … a few weeks ago, our client wrote my partner a letter expressing the following:

I am so thankful that you pushed me to reconsider my initial review of [Naima]... Working with [Naima] has been one of the true joys of my job in the past year, and I really credit you to finding her, cultivating her, and convincing me that she was our person. This organization simply would not be where it is today without her[.]

I am optimistic future hiring decisions will be based firmly on criteria that matter most: qualifications and capabilities. We're starting to see pockets of innovation on this front, especially in tech, and I'm hopeful it will spill over into the education sector and make the US the meritocracy that we so desperately want (and need) it to be.

When we put our biases aside and genuinely assess candidates on the skills, competencies, and mindset they possess versus superficial measures such as familiarity, similarity, “gut,” or race, we enable organizations to hire rock stars like Naima who reflect the students and communities we often serve.

* Candidate and client names were changed to protect their privacy.

Leniece F. Brissett is the founder of Compass Talent Group, a national firm building diverse and inclusive leadership teams for education organizations.

This article is adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.

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