Attracting Diverse Employees Requires Improved Access to Cultural Amenities

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When I was studying for my master’s degree, one of my professors reiterated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that Sunday morning is the “most segregated hour” in America. Nearly 30 years later, little has changed, and that ongoing division between religious communities is emblematic of employers’ difficulties with increasing the diversity of their workforces.

As a recruiter, I am often tasked with cultivating a diverse pool of candidates for important positions in higher education. In recent months — perhaps in reaction to the news that we are becoming a minority-majority nation — the demand from clients to identify qualified individuals from ethnic and cultural minorities has increased in intensity. The issue that often comes with an employer’s desire to attract culturally diverse candidates is a lack of access to cultural amenities.

Several years ago, I performed a presidential search for an institution in the upper Midwest. It was a nice place with a lot of great things going for it, and one of my client’s wishes was for a diverse candidate pool. I brought my client that — a high percentage of candidates from ethnic and cultural minorities. But, when it came down to the last man standing, he was white.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the employer discriminated against the minority candidates, let me be clear: The ethnically diverse candidates, with one notable exception, decided they didn’t want the job. One told me he didn’t want his kids to be the only African American students in the local school. Another wanted to know where the closest congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church or a similar denomination could be found. Several candidates checked census numbers and decided it wasn’t for them. And one person wanted to know specifically where he and his family could get their hair cut. The one minority candidate who continued to want the job, and who was, in fact, a finalist for the position, came from an Asian nation. Rather atypically, there happened to be in that region a small community of immigrants from a different but nearby Asian country that had been sponsored by a mainline Christian denomination and among which he, also a Christian, was sure he could develop a social network.

Employers who are serious about hiring diverse employees, who are not satisfied with simply attracting candidates who are not likely to commit to the job, need to take a realistic look at what they have to offer candidates of varied cultural heritage.

Put yourself in your candidate’s shoes. Imagine you have to drive 35 miles to find a beauty shop that knows how to style your child’s hair or 60 miles to share in a familiar rite of worship. Imagine you can only get key components of the diet you are accustomed to through the mail, have to celebrate your traditions and festivities in isolation, or can enjoy and talk about the art, music, film, theater, and books that speak to your passions only by way of the TV, telephone, or Internet. Sounds unpleasant, yes? What if you knew when you went out to water your lawn on a nice summer day that not one other person in your neighborhood would look like you? What if you had to send your child out into a world where he or she was “the only one”? What would that feel like? If it were forced upon you, you would call it “exile.”

The frustration for me as a recruiter is there’s not a thing I can do about this situation. No matter how effectively I advocate for your institution, I can make no assurances that the qualified, diverse professionals I cultivate, outside of their work for you, will even be safe and comfortable, let alone thrive, in your community.

The solution has to come from a mutual effort on the part of everyone affected. Institutions that want to expand their organizational culture to embrace variety need to spend time, thought, and resources on developing ways for members of minority groups to connect to the amenities that are integral to their ethnic identities. What does that mean? I have no idea, but I am willing to bet that if an employer bites the bullet and acknowledges that a particular candidate is a member of a minority group and proceeds to ask what it would take for the opportunity to remain interesting, he or she will quickly gain some genuinely helpful information. (If you don’t think this is difficult, walk up to the next person you see and state the obvious: “You are white.” Does your stomach turn over at the thought? Does it make you afraid?  That’s how brave an employer needs to be to do this.)

On the other side of the equation is the candidate. It may sound ridiculous, but even now, in 2016, we need pioneers. It is not enough to sit in the center of a community in which you are accepted, comfortable, and successful and complain that the rural Midwest or the upper Northeast isn’t diverse enough. If you want to see diversity increase throughout the nation, in all the institutions that shape the future, you need to consider whether you have it in you to be a pioneer. Do you have what it takes to be the first — the first woman, the first African American, the first Muslim, the first naturalized citizen, the first American Sign Language user, or even the first white man? Do you have what it takes to hold the position or office and be successful at an institution that is otherwise homogeneous? If you don’t, that’s all right; not everyone is cut out to be a pioneer. But if you are — if you have the guts — together, with the right employer, you can make history.●

Vicky Ayers is the senior director for executive recruitment at RPA Inc. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. If you have a question, email her at vayers@rpainc.org.