For the second straight year, I was invited to be a featured workshop presenter at the leadership and Mentoring Conference for the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars Program, held in New York in March.
I had the pleasure of coaching some amazing students who represented the best and brightest from campuses throughout the U.S. This annual conference was established to help students strengthen their networking skills and leadership development.
My workshop focused on interviewing skills, specifically how to finesse an internship into a post-graduation job offer. During the coaching, a young woman asked about the appropriateness of braids and natural hair in a corporate environment, given the current perception and negative stereotypes of minorities in the workplace based on appearance and even names.
The question gave me pause, because these talented and ambitious millennials are facing some of the same biases their parents and grandparents encountered at work. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop presented by author and veteran consultant Howard Ross, a highly respected diversity practitioner. Mr. Ross’ influential work explores unconscious biases in the workplace. He asked our group to do an exercise in which we reviewed resumes that had different names but were identical in content. Our task was to evaluate suitability for a specific job and to summarize our perceptions of the candidates based on the work history and background presented in the resume.
These talented and ambitious millennials are facing some of the same biases their parents and grandparents encountered at work.
I was shocked at my own unconscious biases based on name alone. I assumed the Asian applicant would be more proficient and have greater aptitude for the job’s more technical requirements. I assumed anyone from Harvard would be a greater asset to the company than graduates of any other college or university. And, I assumed any job candidate with a Latino- sounding name might prefer an opportunity that involved using their Spanish-speaking skills, whether or not they were actually Hispanic!
That was a wake-up call for me, and I’d been working in diversity management for a number of years. It showed me that as a diversity lead, I had to prepare my work environment to fully support the company’s diversity mandate to welcome all employee’s participation. The eye-opening exercise also showed me that I needed to review our recruitment efforts and have some frank discussions with hiring managers about who they deemed suitable for positions and how they arrived at those decisions.
Years ago, I had a boss who emphatically told me he would not hire a Tajuana or Lakisha to answer his phone and schedule appointments, because we had prospective government and business clients calling. He did not want callers to assume we were not a serious, buttoned up company, based on the NAME of the front line staffer answering the phone.
I concluded that it was time for me to move on to a work environment that encouraged me and every team member to be our authentic selves.
We had many arguments and discussions regarding his obvious biases and misconceptions.
This was a boss whose views could not be changed. He insisted on hiring a candidate he perceived as the perfect, and stereotypical, girl Friday. Ironically, that turned out to be a disastrous hire and it took more than a year to fire her! As an HR practitioner, that incident forced me to take a realistic look at where I fit in this company’s culture. I concluded that it was time for me to move on to a work environment that encouraged me and every team member to be our authentic selves.
So many companies launch major efforts to attract, develop and cultivate diverse talent, but are they ready to accept that diversity and make it work? New hires and junior staff are eager to make a strong contribution to the team but can be abruptly sidelined when not enough has been done to prepare managers for the entry of people who may not look, act, talk or dress like them.
It was the concern expressed by the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars. These millennials understand that one should always do their best on the job, but what do you do when other people are making judgment calls that have nothing to do with what you know, but how you look?
In that workshop, as I do in all campus coaching presentations, I gave students a mandate: be true to yourself and always go above and beyond what is expected of you to combat perceived biases in the workplace, especially if you are a person of color. Do your homework ahead of time, before your interview for an internship or first post-college job, to see if that company is a good fit for you. Read company blogs. Go on the website and check out profiles of people who work there. Research boards and charities supported by the CEO and other company executives.
Gather as much information as you can to determine if those companies you think you want to work for are right for you. If you are more laid back and everyone in company photos is wearing suits and ties, it may not be the place for you. However, if you see online testimonials and recruiting messages from employees who look like you, you’re more likely to feel you can be comfortable there and can contribute in a way that benefits both you and the company.
For their part, companies committed to diversity are smart enough to know their growth requires individuals to set aside misperception and biases in order to recruit and retain employees who can relate to customers and deliver results. Talented millennials are eager to learn and contribute. Wasted time and resources plus lost productivity are the real costs of biased hiring decisions and incomplete diversity planning.