I’ve seen the still images. I’ve read the transcript.
It’s been over a month, and I still don’t have the courage.
But it’s a courage that, somehow, we expect our Black colleagues to muster every day in the face of still-rampant racism in the workplace and at home. Black people don’t have the luxury of turning away. They experience this outrage on a daily basis. And the world—including the corporate world—is finally waking up to the lived reality of hundreds of years of systemic oppression, from enslavement to Jim Crow to the school-to-prison pipeline.
What we do now, in a historical moment already fractured by a global pandemic, will determine what kind of future we’ll have. It will determine whether the arc of human history really does bend towards justice. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to ending systemic racism in the corporate workplace, there are steps we can take to shift the playing field as communications professionals, particularly internally. Since internal comms has direct contact with HR, we can make our presence felt. And we can push for meaningful change in our hiring practices, now.
But before we do that, it’s important to tackle some myths about how we address the racist elephant in the corporate boardroom.
Myth #1 – We Can Train Our Way out of Racism
A lot has been said about the importance of diversity and inclusion trainings in the workplace, especially around unconscious bias. “Unlearning” our automatic, unintentional, and deeply ingrained biases is supposed to break the corporate cycle of C-Suite executives who are mostly male and entirely white (except for the CDO, who already bears the emotional burden of educating their non-Black colleagues on how to be anti-racist).
As an educator whose expertise is in DE&I, I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit. Not just because education can’t be the only answer to dismantling racist systems of power, but because the facts don’t lie: in 2018, Black professionals held 3.3% of all executive or senior leadership roles. Among Fortune 100 companies, 3% of CEOs are Black. Among Fortune 500 companies, less than 1% of CEOs are Black.
Let that sink in. Black folx don’t even comprise a single percentage point of the CEOs who have the most power, the most privilege, and the most influence on our consumer habits. And a two-day training on implicit bias is supposed to somehow undo this? Nah. Trainings are only a very small part of the solution. And more often than not, they are mere legal cover for not taking any concrete steps to hire and promote diverse talent.
Myth #2 – It’s a Pipeline Problem!
This lie is so often repeated that it’s nauseating, especially in tech circles. It goes something like this: “There aren’t enough candidates who are Black. I mean, you need access to education at the top universities in order to get hired at the top tech firms, and they just don’t have that. We can’t do anything about it because it’s an access problem.”
The problem with this line of reasoning (and the larger metaphor of the pipeline, itself a problematic term borrowed from the white, male-dominated field of engineering) is that it enables companies to redirect and avoid responsibility for hiring diverse talent. It also makes major assumptions about where the best talent lies (“top universities”), and it presumes that anyone’s journey to professional development can be funneled smoothly through a linear pipeline of hard work and determination.
Except for the wealthy and well-connected, this linear pipeline simply isn’t realistic. Pretending otherwise just kicks the can down the road, and it will no longer do. Exceptional Black talent is everywhere; it’s just about knowing where to look. (Hint: HBCUs are a great place to start.)
Myth #3 – Metrics are Colorblind
When discussing why they chose to interview or hire certain candidates, hiring managers will point to work experience, hard skills, and education as the metrics by which they assess job seekers. These allegedly “colorblind” metrics are supposed to determine how effective a job candidate will be in their new role (after all, only the current US president could get away with achieving the highest office in the land without the requisite experience!).
In other words: qualifications become the measure of job performance, and they don’t “see” race.
Except that they totally do. In a study conducted by two professors at the University of Chicago School of Business, fictitious resumes with the exact same work experience, hard skills, and education were sent out with black- and white-sounding names. White names received 50% more callbacks for interviews. Callbacks were also “more responsive” to resume quality for white names than for black names.
Metrics can be racist, because people can be racist. It’s on people—particularly People teams—to change their habits. And that’s precisely where internal comms comes in.
Advocating for Change
More than ever, internal comms and HR are finding that they share the same goal: strong organizational culture. According to Andrew Harvey, Director of Internal Communications at the VMA Group, “The line between internal communications and human resources… is becoming increasingly blurred. Both functions are engaging with the same audience, so it makes sense that the two departments work together. And with both departments constantly seeking a stronger voice in the boardroom, collaboration could be a real game-changer.”
Though internal comms doesn’t usually help manage recruitment and hiring, this area is ripe for collaboration with HR. The employees we communicate with won’t change unless we encourage HR to change their approach to hiring. If culture is the end-goal of internal comms, then HR needs to rely on its IC team to support the recruiting function and attract diverse talent.
And while many companies are in a hiring freeze due to COVID, the foundational work needs to start now. This will require stepping outside our comfort zones. But not without sound business sense behind it.
Tools for Change
In calling on internal comms professionals to push HR for meaningful change, I take inspiration from Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior, Shelley Correll. Dr. Correll’s work on reducing gender bias in the corporate workplace is predicated on a “small wins” model of change. This model works with managers to implement small but concrete actions that produce results and serve as the building blocks to larger organizational transformation, such as measurable increases in the rate of hiring women.
By taking a small wins approach, we change the playing field steadily, working alongside established hiring processes to move the needle on representation.
And as change management representatives, we can all get on board with that!
Step #1: Describe Positions Broadly in Job Ads
Hiring managers seem to love creating a laundry list of requirements for a job, inadvertently creating a narrow search for a unicorn candidate that, well, simply doesn’t exist. As storytellers and concise communicators, IC can collaborate with HR to craft job descriptions with a broader net. Job ads that focus, in particular, on skills and competencies (rather than focusing on “experience”) will encourage a diverse set of candidates to apply. And the more diverse your candidates, the more your company will avoid group-think, which stifles innovation.
Step #2: Discuss and Align on Criteria Before Evaluating Applicants
When crafting criteria for a job description, be sure to decide what the position requires, so that the goal-posts aren’t unintentionally shifted during the applicant screening process. Is education the most important criterion? Or is it competency in a particular system, platform, or software?
It’s especially important to re-examine criteria from the lens of potential bias: is the job ad placing too much emphasis on nebulous characteristics such as “personality”? (Black women, for example, are often incorrectly perceived as aggressive and angry, leading to negative evaluations of personality.) Always question criteria that don’t directly correlate with performance.
Step #3: Screen Applicants with a Rubric
We all know that the volume of applications for a role is sometimes relentless, and that every HR department is under pressure to hire efficiently. But slowing down by using your internal comms team to create a rubric for evaluation actually results in much more consistently diverse—and productive!—hiring. Standardization leads to fairer outcomes.
As always, use the criteria laid out in the job ad to create your rubric, and avoid “gut instincts” when reviewing applicants. Instincts can be laden with bias, causing your applicant pool to shrink, once again, to solely white and male.
Step #4: Develop a Consistent Interview Process across Candidates
Interview to criteria and ensure that all team members are prepared to ask questions that engage with an applicant’s skill set. Too many interview processes are haphazard, with some team members aggressively questioning candidates of color or interrupting female candidates before they can finish their answers. Consider appointing a facilitator during panel interviews, whose job is to maintain interview standards across candidates, regardless of their race or gender. The more interviews are structured, the less likely they are to be unintentionally biased.
Step #5: Be Alert to Bias in Endorsements
Employee referrals are incredibly powerful in the hiring process—in fact, companies are 4x more likely to hire a candidate who was internally referred. Referrals can be so powerful that they serve as the “tie-breaker” between equally qualified candidates.
But referrals are just as prone to bias as any other mechanism, and we need to be wary of them exerting undue influence in our decision-making. Our social networks often reflect our own backgrounds: our race, socioeconomic status, college alumni affiliation, and more. If a company relies too heavily on employee referrals, they run the risk of hiring the same people, leading to homogeneity instead of diversity.
I get that corporations these days are risk-averse, and that part of what makes hiring such a tricky proposition is that we have a tendency to seek “replicable” results. But it’s time we start taking more risks as communications professionals who have direct contact with the departments that manage our external (PR) and internal brands (HR). We need to speak up and have the courage to challenge the everyday racism in our organizational structures.
Solidarity statements and crisis communications plans carry little weight when our organizations remain overwhelmingly white and male, with little to no representation by BIPOC leadership.
It’s time to do the internal work.
Farida Habeeb, Ph.D. is a communications specialist, DE&I expert, and Associate Professor of Writing at USC. She serves on the Executive Board of IABCLA. She is a native Angeleno and is tired of this nonsense. Find her on LinkedIn.