Workplace Culture

Hiring a White Guy as Your Diversity Leader

By Kris Dunn

Feb. 24, 2016

If there’s anything that gets people riled up, it’s race. That’s why the recent move by Twitter to hire a white guy, Jeffrey Siminoff, as the company’s new diversity leader is so interesting — and explosive.

First up, the question of whether your diversity chief needs to hail from a protected class gets the juices flowing in a way few topics can. Most of us believe that the best candidate for any job should be selected, right?

Not so fast, my friends. It’s America — and that means you’re in a country with decades of baggage related to hiring practices, corporations that look like country clubs and distrust from all sides.

Need proof? Tell your average white male over 35 in America that Twitter should have hired a person of color as its diversity chief and wait for the fireworks.

Most white people served by HR professionals think of affirmative action when they hear the word diversity. Most organizations are full of white people and have a greater business need for diversity. Those two facts are key when determining whether a white person can lead diversity efforts at your company.

Let’s take two well-known organizations — the NFL and Facebook — and dig into their initiatives to increase diversity to understand why optics matter.

The NFL has the Rooney Rule. It mandates that any football team in the league filling a head coaching position must interview at least one minority candidate. Named after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney, chairman of the league’s diversity committee, the rule was created in the hopes of increasing the number of minority head coaches in the league.

Your managers hear diversity and think race. And that’s exactly why your diversity leader should not be white but progressive in his or her definition of diversity.

Facebook borrowed this concept in 2015 and implemented a policy of having at least one minority candidate interview for open positions as well. Sounds like affirmative action, right? It’s not; it’s more about the realities of selection bias and forcing hiring managers to surprise themselves.

On many occasions, hiring managers have a candidate in mind that they want to plug into a job. When this happens, they’re usually so set on the decision that they think any other interviews (even internal candidates) may be a waste of time.

The tough part about that is that your company still has a process, and the hiring manager needs to put forth a little more effort. If you’re like the NFL and Facebook, you might plug in a diversity candidate and mandate an interview even if the hiring manager objects.

Your hiring manager doesn’t want to do it, and he or she is bitching about it. You’re faced with the classic Catch-22. You either force the process and risk looking like a bureaucrat, or you let hiring managers do their thing without interviewing a diverse candidate, which is undoubtedly bad for the long-term diversity of your workforce as well as your goal of hiring the best talent.

I’m a moderate Republican and, as you’ve probably noticed, white. You might think I would vote to allow the hiring manager to skip the diverse candidate interviews with that profile, right?

But I wouldn’t, and here’s why. I’ve learned that for every 10 interviews you make hiring managers do against their will, they are going to get two to three pleasant surprises. That means they’re impressed enough by the candidate in question that they’ll change their mind and offer them the job, or they’ll put the memory on reserve and as a result hire them for a future role.

Both outcomes don’t happen unless you force the hiring manager to conduct the diverse interview. And the surprise can help change attitudes and mindsets in your company.

Can a white guy lead your diversity practice? My take is you need a nonwhite person as your diversity leader, but that person has to be worldly enough to expand the definition of diversity at your company as soon as he or she walks in the door. The person can’t be what the majority expects.

You and I know that diversity transcends race. But that’s because we’re classically trained. Your managers hear diversity and think race. And that’s exactly why your diversity leader should not be white but progressive in his or her definition of diversity.

There’s no surprise in a nonwhite person being named as your diversity leader. It’s what happens next that is key. If your nonwhite diversity leader presents a broader context/business case for diversity that transcends race and backs it up with action, he or she has a greater chance for success.

White people can do a good job as diversity officers at your company. Nonwhite people can do it better — as long as they make diversity about more than race.

It’s all about surprising the narrow-minded people in your organization.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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