From D&I Events to Black Instagram Squares: The Good and the Bad of Recruiting’s Response to Inequality 

America got an overdue wake-up call last year. We saw more stories of systemic racism and inequality come onto the front pages of our newspapers and doorsteps, a reality that no one could or should ignore. Before this, it was the #MeToo movement that had headlines focused on the stark reality of discrimination happening right before our eyes.

As many more Americans began to look for and find systemic racism and sexism in their midst, even corporate America — which historically has stayed rather apolitical — started not only to pay attention but to make public statements about inequality. 

Some companies began to take real action, like implementing new policies and putting a plan in place for long-term change. On the flip side, many did not — though they did manage to post black squares on Instagram or put out statements about gender pay gaps followed by minimal-to-no action.

As the CEO and co-founder of a recruitment platform for companies that want to hire qualified, diverse early-career talent, I’ve had the unique opportunity to see under the hood of how many of the largest corporations in the world have (or have not) changed their recruiting practices. Many companies have long claimed to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion when recruiting — and this year, I had a front-row view of what they did (or didn’t do) following this year’s wake-up call.

(I should point out that my company focuses on recruitment and nothing after that — such as employee performance or management, etc. So while many companies I refer to below may have done extraordinary — or weak — work in making changes to their diversity recruitment practices at the entry-level, that does not always reflect on how they treat employees or how they go about executive recruitment.)

The Good

Here are some of the positive employer reactions I’ve seen in 2020:

Focusing on Data, Not Anecdotes 

Companies committed to change looked at their hiring funnel data to see where gaps existed in their recruiting process — and then made necessary changes. Otherwise, as I like to say, it’s like trying to play a game of whack-a-mole, where you think the problem is in one part of your funnel (typically the top), whereas in reality, you’re losing your diverse candidates in various parts of your funnel (such as during an assessment). 

When companies took a more in-depth look at how their Black, Hispanic, or female candidates were making their way through hiring funnels, they saw that some criteria were unintentionally knocking out minority candidates. And great companies then took action. For example, when one company we worked with saw that a technical assessment was rejecting Black and Hispanic candidates at a higher rate, they started using the assessment as an indicator rather than a pass/fail.

Meaningful Employer Branding

Posting a black square on Instagram is not going to give more minority candidates equal hiring opportunities and bring more diversity into the workforce. Period. So it’s critical that companies communicate how they’re responding to inequality, the actions they’ve taken, and the steps they plan to take in the future. (In fact, one of our surveys showed that 86% of Gen Z candidates cite a company’s commitment to diversity as a Top 10 factor in deciding whether to accept an offer.) We loved seeing companies’ blog posts, videos, and more, where they highlighted their D&I initiatives and hope to see that continue.

Companies Hosting Their Own D&I Events 

Companies that took their diversity hiring seriously also increased the number of virtual D&I events they hosted. These events can come in many shapes and sizes. The most popular ones tend to be educational, where employers will bring diverse leaders from their company onto a video call with diverse students and talk candidly about everything from the good (how to get a job when you don’t have a referral) to the bad (what it’s like to be the only Black person on your team) and so much more. Students and recent graduates love these events and interacting/networking with leaders in such a transparent way. It’s hard to have Zoom fatigue when an event is inspiring, authentic, and raw.

The Bad

And then there are the not-so-good employer reactions from 2020:

The D&I Hire With no Budget

Many companies in 2020 hired a D&I leader (which is incredible). In fact, according to ZoomInfo, from 2015 to 2020, there has been a 113% increase in executives with D&I titles. The only problem I keep hearing? That these hires are given next to no budget. Imagine hiring a marketing or sales leader and saying, “You get no team and no budget. Good luck!” 

Without a budget, this critical hire will have little to no room to make a difference and effect change in the company or partner with vendors they know can help. Hiring a D&I leader but giving them nothing to work with says, “I care about this only enough to make it someone else’s problem, but not enough to actually solve it.”

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The Talent Pool Excuses 

After all of the social upheaval that took place this summer, we still saw leaders make statements about how there is supposedly a “limited pool of diverse talent” to recruit from. I can’t emphasize enough how far this is from the truth, at least for entry-level recruiting (the world I live in). 

It’s a common misconception many employers have that they aren’t hiring enough diverse people because they don’t get enough diverse applicants to begin with. The reality? The talent pool isn’t the issue — the recruitment channels and/or hiring practices are. 

The HBCU Band-Aid

This one really got to me after hearing it so many times. Many companies I spoke with this fall said their solution to improving their diversity numbers was simple: Focus on recruiting from more historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

To be blunt: This is a band-aid solution. This is not a systemic change in any way because there is no shortage of great Black and Hispanic talent who aren’t at HBCUs and HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions). It’s wrong to believe that such places are the only place to find Black and Hispanic candidates. 

The real solution here is to expand where you’re sourcing holistically. That means significantly expanding your school list or eliminating school restrictions entirely, rather than adding one HBCU to your list of core schools.

To be clear, I am a huge fan of HBCUs and HSIs and recommend companies include them in their larger list of schools to recruit from. But don’t forget the amazing minority talent who attend other great schools! To give an example with some data: Spelman, an incredible university that also happens to be a fantastic HBCU, has 2,171 students, most of whom self-identify as Black. Meanwhile, Rutgers-New Brunswick has roughly 37,364 students, about 8% (2,989) who self-identify as Black.

What Comes Next?

The future of recruiting is when companies don’t try to put a Band-Aid on a problem but instead look for systemic changes to their processes. 

The good news? There’s been progress. After the #MeToo movement, I saw firsthand how companies took action on their hiring and promotion of women. And now, I hope we’ll see the same for employers recruiting people of color.

Liz Wessel is the co-founder and CEO of WayUp, a venture-backed startup based in New York that transforms how employers recruit students and recent grads, helping them hire diverse and qualified early-career talent. Liz has been featured in Forbes' "30 Under 30," Business Insider's “18 Coolest Women in Silicon Valley,” and the New York Business Journal’s “Most Influential Women.” Liz has also been a speaker at TEDx, TechCrunch Disrupt, SXSW, and other events. Prior to WayUp, Liz worked in marketing at Google in Mountain View and India.

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