A Traumatic Job Search: “I Was Rejected for Embodying Company Values”

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Feb 17, 2021

Chad Sanders, author of Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Trauma and Triumph, was asked during an interview with Brené Brown what he learned after interviewing 15 powerful Black leaders, scientists, artists, activists, and champions. Sanders responded: “Faith. When I go back and re-read the book, it’s teaching me that these people at some point stopped making decisions based on what they thought, and they started making decisions on what they believed.”

On June 5 last year, I made a decision based on what I believed. I knew in my soul that I needed to resign from my role as the leader of employee relations at a large technology company. So I did just that. 

In the middle of a global pandemic without another role lined up, despite the fears of every person that loved me, I made a life-altering decision as an HR professional based on my beliefs.

My reasons to depart were simple: My former employer asked me to fire Black employees without justified termination reasons, the company would not speak on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I had been treated disparagingly because I was Latina.

In short, after George Floyd was murdered I sent an email to my business units acknowledging the “unrest in America” and providing EAP information. My white counterpart copy-and-pasted my email to her business units. I was formally reprimanded for the email and my white counterpart was not, which was the final show of discrimination I needed to leave the company. 

Afterward, I spent eight damaging months as a job-seeker, horrified by some of the interview questions about my departure — and recruiters’ reactions to my responses. 

My job search illuminated for me the harsh reality that a candidate’s future rests almost entirely on the interpretation of their history by the recruitment process. While we may have adjusted our hiring practices to weed out the Amy Coopers of the world, we have also pushed aside professionals who stand up for the values we so desperately need in our companies. 

My job-seeker experience proved that hiring teams and companies were seeking neutral and muted candidates, ones that did not ask the organization to answer any social justice questions. In turn, employers were keen to reject a socially convicted candidate like me for not being a “culture fit.” 

Skeptical Recruiting

“Can you go into more detail about your departure from your last organization?” “What do you mean by ethical dilemma?” “Could you give us the exact scenario that warranted your resignation?”

At first these questions seemed unassuming, routine, standard. Yet as the interviews piled up and I began to analyze my recruitment experience, it became obvious that the questions were less about why I left and more centered around people’s fear and disbelief that I had left for ethical and social-justice reasons.

Regardless of how professional or responsible my responses were, the continuation of questions proved to me that hiring managers were responding with more questions because they were faced with someone who embodied the company values displayed on their websites. Strangely enough, this made them uncomfortable. And that made me uncomfortable. 

For eight months my candidate experience consisted of sitting in front of a camera with a white person staring back at me, mouth drawn tightly as I jumped through every hoop to explain to them that I made the decision other white HR professionals were afraid to make.

Hiring teams dug deeper into my reasons for leaving a tech company than my reasons for wanting to work for them. I spent more than half an hour convincing white people that a brown woman’s decision to leave on ethics would not hurt but benefit them.

I craved the opportunity to talk about my work, my two national awards, the research I had done on their company, and how I could innovate for them. But their deep need to know every detail of my resignation was astounding and overwhelmed the process. 

My responses remained dignified and professional: “Unethical practices regarding terminations were asked of me and I could no longer continue honorable work.” “My culture was not respected by leadership, which did not allow me to bring my entire self to the table.” “I brought my ethical concerns up the appropriate chain of command several times, and once it was made clear these concerns would not be heard, I was no longer able to continue work I was proud of.” 

It remained important for me to give enough detail to provide credit to my decision while keeping certain matters confidential. Gossiping about my former employer to their competitors was not only tacky, it was outright wrong. Watching hiring managers hunger for the details of people they knew (tech is a small world) at my own expense was alarming. Still, I maintained confidentiality — which I believe prevented me from moving forward in the hiring process. 

My answers were received in one of two ways — total incredulity or absolute fear. 

Recruiters and hiring managers had explosive and unmasked doubts that I was telling the truth and pressed me to release details proving my story. Interview panels were terrified that I would be the moral police and stopped listening to the remarkable sides of my HR practices. 

I spent my job search realizing that the work history I was proud of, the decade of experience, multiple national awards, several letters of recommendation, experience in more industries than most HR professionals, and an unmatched love for humans meant absolutely nothing if people didn’t believe my answers to their questions. 

The interpretation of my work history was completely skewed by such skeptical recruiting. 

It became clear to me that hiring panels would not hire a brown woman who left a well-known tech company on belief alone — because what kind of brown woman leaves a well-known tech company for something like that? Not one we want.

As I reflect on women trying to re-enter the workforce after a gap in employment, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ candidates grasping to explain why they were let go first instead of the white employees during Covid budget cuts, or HR professionals who finally leave because of their beliefs about how humans should be treated, I am struck by how skeptical the recruitment process has become.

It’s Not About You

My job search came to an end at a company with values like Be Authentic, Act Boldly, and Play Team. In the interviews they would tell me, “I’m trying to assess your courage, so my questions will be about courage.” No hiding, no games, straightforward communication about needed qualities in an HR partner. 

Their interview questions paralleled their values, and the company cared deeply about my decision-making instead of my ability to paper-push the organization into a successful quarter. 

The process was less about my work history, because checking tactical boxes is something a phone screen should knock out, and more about how my brain works in specific situations. 

The interviews were about me, not them or their systematic fears. 

This approach removed fear, reduced bias, and created these magical spaces for lightning to strike. And lightning did strike each time I met with someone on the hiring team. 

Human Recruiting 

If we are ever to fill the souls of our companies with groundbreaking talent, we must recruit like we are the ones sitting in the chair across from us.

We must make interviews about humans instead of history, talent instead of personal preferences, and values instead of our need to be validated. 

Great candidates are out there. Is your process human enough to capture them?

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