When the "Best" is Not Good Enough
Recently, my consulting firm administered a campus climate survey for one of our clients, a Christian educational institution. In that survey, we asked how respondents felt about this statement: “My school/university should recruit more minorities for leadership/faculty roles.” This survey had both a quantitative and a qualitative component. This means there were multiple choice questions that we scored, but there were also opportunities to write comments. We received numerous comments along the lines of, “The most important thing is not diversity but to choose the best candidate for the job.” Others stated, “If you make diversity the main thing, then this is reverse racism.” Repeatedly, survey participants expressed this fear that intentional recruitment of minorities would lead to the hiring of incompetent or less qualified personnel.
The Idea of the “Best"
The main problem with the idea that, “You should hire diversity but be sure that you’re choosing the best candidate for the job,” is that this idea of “best” is seldom interrogated. What does “best” mean, and who gets to define it? We act as if the “best” is some universally defined quality that is readily applicable to any job at any institution. That’s because we usually think of the “best” candidates as people having the most education and experience. In reality, however, institutions define the characteristics and qualifications of an ideal candidate based upon their specific needs and demands that often have little to do with one's education or direct experience.
In independent schools, the best candidate for a teaching position will sometimes be someone who is willing to coach an extracurricular sport (often with no experience playing the sport!). In Christian schools, best means someone who will readily agree to and sign the institution’s statement of faith. In other words, an organization may interview a candidate who received a 4.0 GPA from Harvard and has ten years of related experience, but if they are an atheist or subscribe to another faith, they won’t be hired.
Rethinking the “Best”
Why don’t we view the diversity of our workforce through the same lens? Being an ethnic minority in this country means a person has most likely gained perspectives and ways of seeing the world that enhance an organization and expose its blindspots. Institutions seeking to keep pace with a rapidly diversifying world in which collaboration between ethnicities will only increase need to consider diversity as an advantage that will help them thrive within this shifting economic and social landscape. This means that racial/ethnic diversity can provide a set of cultural and interpretive abilities that will be helpful and instructive for the organization as a whole. Just as a school may decide that hiring a coach would be “best” for the institution, or a faith based non-profit will decide that hiring a Christian would be “best” for the institution, if your leadership team or faculty are predominantly white, then adding someone from an underrepresented ethnicity will probably be the “best” addition to your workforce.
With this being said, it will be important to frame the job description so that it reflects the skills you desire in a diverse candidate. For example, if a Christian school is hiring a teacher, they may state that the person hired should be able to “effectively teach students from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.” This will require the ideal candidate to demonstrate experience and success in reaching different types of students. By highlighting the skills that diversity can provide, you’re not placing the focus solely on the candidate’s ethnicity itself.
This is not Reverse Racism
Still, some of you are thinking, well, “Isn’t this reverse racism?” The problem with historical racial discrimination in America, as this argument goes, is that people unfairly considered race when they were making hiring decisions, thus leading to the exclusion of black people and other ethnic minorities from jobs and positions. If an organization purposely considers race when hiring, then people may think that it encourages the same type of racism and discrimination...but now unfairly directed toward white people.
This seems plausible on the surface. But I’d like you to engage in a brief exercise. Imagine that you are in the boardroom or conference room where the leadership team of your institution gathers. Now imagine you are sitting in a leadership team meeting, and take an imaginary look around. If your leadership team is comprised of almost all white people, do you think there are other non-white candidates qualified to sit at that table? Your response may be, “Of course there are, but no one else applied.”
Now ask yourself, why didn't they apply? It could be because your institution has an exclusionary past that prevents them from trusting you. Or it could be that your internal personnel have very few relationships with people from differing racial/ethnic backgrounds, which means they can’t effectively share your opportunities with minorities. Maybe people from differing racial/ethnic backgrounds see your organization’s website and promotional materials and immediately conclude that they will not belong. In each of these cases, something is impeding the intended message that minorities are welcome in your organization. Based upon the history of this country and the way that predominantly white institutions have treated minorities, this is a significant problem that needs to be overcome.
The way to fix it is not by imagining that all are welcome based upon the warm and familial culture that most of your current stakeholders experience. If we non-white people really knew we would belong, then we would be trying to get hired. For example, we don’t find a shortage of black people working in federal government agencies (public school systems, social service agencies, courts, post offices, etc.). There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that federal agencies have always been more favorable toward minorities, being among the first to racially desegregate, and then subsequently enacting policies and regulations that welcomed and protected us while many private industries still remained segregated and exclusive.
The checkered history of our Christian organizations means you must intentionally target minorities to help fix the problem. To reverse the exclusionary policies and mechanisms that caused non-whites to feel welcome, you must intentionally reach out to us to ensure we know we are welcome and will be safe with you. If we don't see ourselves being hired at your institution, then we will not take your expressed commitment to diversity seriously. You must prioritize diversity so we will know that you are committed to expanding the culture and racial/ethnic composition of your institution. Otherwise, how will we ever know?