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Why So Many Diversity Initiatives Are Not Working

Ama Karikari-Yawson

Milestales Publishing and Education Consulting

The recent murders and maimings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Jacob Blake have pushed racial equity issues to center stage. From the dining room to the corporate boardroom, everyone is talking about racial justice, racial equity, and diversity and inclusion.

As a diversity trainer, I am often asked about how companies and firms can attract and retain diverse employees. This is an important question that demands more attention.

According to The Hill, only 33 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, and of those women, only one is a woman of color. Besides, only four Black CEOs and 11 Latinx CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies. Corporate boards do not look much better, as only 16% of corporate board members are people of color—of the 16%, less than 20% are women. While people of color comprise 40% of the U.S. population, only 17% of attorneys at law firms are people of color, according to the 2019 Vault/Minority Corporate Counsel Association Annual Law Firm Diversity Survey.

What is happening? Why do companies struggle to attract and retain diverse employees, especially in leadership roles?

Here are five reasons why many companies' diversity and inclusion efforts to recruit and retain professionals of color are not working.

 1. Phantom Job Openings

During the months before I went to Wharton and Penn Law for my J.D. and MBA, I worked as a business manager for an independent film.

The film boasted talented actors such as Michael B. Jordan, Zoe Saldana, LaTanya Richardson, and Jeffrey Wright. Our team worked diligently for months to cast these actors in their leading roles. However, we still went through promoting auditions for those same roles in the SAG community. Talented young actors dressed, put on makeup, and channeled their deepest skills hoping to land roles that had already been promised to others.

I strongly suspect this same phenomenon of “phantom jobs” exists in corporate hiring and government procurement. The powers that be have strong inclinations for whom they are hiring or contracting based on their past experiences, networks, alliances, and allegiances. Forbes shared a similar observation: “Companies and institutions will interview people ... to pad out a candidate roster only in order to get approval to hire someone they've already chosen for the role. They don't mind wasting job-seekers' time on fake interviews just to satisfy a policy.”

The report shows that people of color often lack the networks, alliances, and allegiances to be “insider” candidates. As a result, they are often not being recruited, in earnest, despite companies' written commitments to diversity and inclusion.

 2. Implicit Bias in Resume Reviews and Fit Tests

Implicit bias is an unconscious and unintentional prejudice in favor of or against an individual or group, and it’s often based on preconceived notions and stereotypes. Few people are willing to openly admit their belief that people of certain racial or ethnic groups are unintelligent, lazy, overly sexual, robotic, or lacking creativity. However, many still hold such damaging beliefs on some level.

A 2016 article in Administrative Science Quarterly detailed a two-year study in which resumes with identical qualifications were sent to employers. One batch of resumes retained racial or ethnic details such as names and organizational affiliations. The other batch was “whitened” by changing foreign-sounding names to more “white American” names and changing hobbies to outdoor activities such as snowboarding and kayaking. The results were astounding.

Ten percent of Black candidates received callbacks for their original resumes, while a quarter of their whitened resumes received callbacks. For Asian American candidates, 21% of whitened resumes received callbacks, while only 11.5% of resumes with racial references heard back from their employers. This was true even though many employers had included written commitments to diversity in their job descriptions. It seems as if implicit bias is at work here with hiring managers subconsciously subscribing to the belief that people of color are worse candidates.

Moreover, even when candidates of color are called back and receive opportunities to interview, their candidacies are often undermined by “fit tests.” This culture of white supremacy, established over time, has hampered inclusive diversity in the workplace, playing out in the recruitment, retention, and management of businesses around the world.

During my years at investment banks and corporate law firms, I was often asked to engage in interviews for my employer. One of the explicit mandates was that interviewers should evaluate whether the candidate would “fit” with the bank or firm. I was asked to determine whether I would be okay with being stuck at the airport or in an elevator with the person.

It was a test for both likeability and likeness. “Is this person like us, and do they have the same interests?” Such a mandate directly contradicts the stated diversity initiatives. The entire point should be to find people who are not like the existing people. Hiring different people will bring new ideas, perspectives, and outlooks to the benefit of the employer.

But that is not happening.

It’s not happening because our country is so segregated that three-quarters of white people do not have a single nonwhite Facebook friend, according to The Washington Post. That said, white people and people of color are often having separate conversations and engaging in separate activities. People of color will often flunk “fit tests” with white interviewers, which demonstrates that this requirement undermines firms’ explicit diversity goals.

 3. Microaggressions at Work

It is clear that people of color face challenges when being recruited in corporate America. However, for the lucky individuals who are able to land such jobs, the challenges are not over. This is because microaggressions often undermine their comfort and mental health.

Microaggressions are commonplace verbal, symbolic, or gestural assaults, insults, and invalidations reflecting prejudice, stereotypes, and lack of cultural sensitivity that denigrate their victims.

For example, an African American lead partner at a law firm attended a meeting with other counsel, and although he was the oldest attorney there, he was asked if he was on the discovery team. There are reported stories of how human resources managers do reprimand African American women who wear their naturally kinky hair for looking “unprofessional.” Asian American and Latinx professionals have been lauded for their “good” English when English may be their first and only language.

These daily microaggressions take a toll on the mental and physical health of diverse employees and often cause them to flee corporate America for more welcoming and culturally sensitive environments. A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation revealed that more than a third of African American professionals surveyed intend to leave their companies within two years to escape toxic work environments.

 4. Biased Performance Reviews

Sadly, implicit bias is so pervasive and insidious that it also hurts people of color in the review process. Attorneys of color sometimes face diminished corporate advancement because they receive negative reviews. Leadership consulting firm Nextion engaged in a study in which they created a memo with intentional errors for law firm partners to review. Some partners were told that the memo was written by a fictitious white NYU Law grad named Thomas Meyer. Other partners were told that it was written by a fictitious African American NYU Law grad named Thomas Meyer. The identical memo received a rating of 4.1 out of 5 when the partners were told that the author was white Thomas Meyer. Additionally, he was lauded for his solid potential and good analytical skills.

Conversely, the fictitious African American Thomas Meyer received a score of 3.2 out of 5. He was even criticized as average at best, and partners said he needed a lot of work. Some partners remarked that they could not believe that African American Thomas Meyer attended NYU Law.

It is likely that the partners of the firm did not think of themselves as bigots. They thought of themselves as good, liberal, and progressive individuals. However, over four hundred years of racial stereotypes labeling people of African descent as unintelligent and lazy continue till today. This lingering belief that people of European descent are smarter and harder working had certainly impacted the law firm partners’ analysis on a subconscious level.

There are millions of African American Thomas Meyers in corporate America whose memos, reports, and products are being judged harshly due to bias. It is challenging for African Americans and other people of color to work under such conditions day after day without feeling demoralized and eventually quitting.

 5. Your Reputation Precedes You

Once a corporation has established a reputation for providing an unfriendly or even hostile environment for people of color, that reputation spreads, and fewer professionals of color are interested in applying to such a company or accepting offers from them. This creates a vicious cycle of lack of diversity, inclusion, and equity and produces some of America’s wealthiest and most economically entrenched entities.

So, what can we do about this?

The first question is: “Do you really care about creating a diverse company that can cater to the needs of a diverse population?”

If so, you have to invest in changing things from how they are now to how they should be. The first step is hiring a professional to engage in a diversity audit in which every aspect of your company’s the recruiting, retention, and exit process is examined for flaws such as the ones listed in this article. Once identified, these flaws can be corrected through customized initiatives such as blind resume reviews, the institutionalization of diversity goals, company mentorship initiatives, and other programs. Moreover, year-round diversity training programs that incorporate holistic practices such as mindfulness should be utilized to consistently promote an atmosphere of greater cultural awareness.

Our current issues of racism, lack of diversity, exclusion, and inequity can only be solved if people with power and influence make the decision to invest in change.

For more information about systemic racism and implicit bias in the workplace, and to learn about what lawyers can do to promote diversity and inclusion where they work, register now for Ama’s upcoming PLI program, How Can I Foster Racial Equity Now?

Ama Karikari-Yawson, Esq. is the founder of Milestales, a publishing, training, and consulting firm that provides books, diversity audits, diversity training programs, and other customized services to law firms, corporations, universities, and schools.

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