Recruiter Realness: Surprise (Not Really)! There Are Racist Recruiters.

In the 20 years that I’ve been recruiting, very little has changed. I thought a global pandemic and widespread racial unrest would somehow be the much needed catalysts for changing the recruiting landscape. It was my sincere hope that we would take this time to acknowledge our role in supporting discriminatory hiring practices, make any necessary individual adjustments, and no longer participate in or uphold those practices inside of our organizations.

Perhaps it’s the effects of quarantine, veils being lifted, or masks coming off to reveal who people really are. Or a likely combination of all three. In any event, having a front-row seat to view the worst of human traits on display by fellow recruiters has me feeling distressed, angry, and some days totally hopeless. 

The first two months of quarantine gave me, what I now know, a false sense of hope. As we all scrambled, tried to settle in, and make sense of what was going on, I saw compassion and cooperation amongst recruiters that I hadn’t seen since leaving the corporate life behind. 

Recruiters from all over the country (and in some instances the world) came together as one community to help those who had lost their jobs to find new employment. They organized virtual meet-ups and happy hours. They offered free services to job-seekers, expanded their networks, and provided a safe place for fellow recruiters to share their concerns and worries. They hosted webinars and trainings designed to assist employers and job-seekers under unusual circumstances. 

Despite all of the chaos and uncertainty, recruiters seemed to be elevating and securing their place as trusted, reliable, accountable, strategic partners. I was so proud.

 Then came May. People started to get restless, pleasantries started to wane, and negativity started to resurface. The pandemic was taking its toll on everyone, including recruiters. Aside from the occasional “COVID is hoax” and “wearing a mask violates my civil rights” debates, there was only one time I felt compelled to inform, gather, and send a recruiter on his merry way.

In response to a campaign to honor Ahmaud Arbery on what should have been his 26th birthday, a (former) recruiting manager for a global corporation tweeted a racially biased justification for Arbery’s murdered. After a spotlight was shined on his comment, this recruiter claimed he was hacked instead rather than take responsibility for his hurtful words. He rallied support from “people who know he’s not a racist” and spent days in my LinkedIn comments trying to prove that I and others who called out his behavior were the ones at fault and being racist.

Still, I hadn’t given up hope for positive change because I know the mental and emotional tax that recruiters pay to be effective under the best of circumstances. Plus, forced isolation for a bunch of people who thrive in social settings was an unwelcome, uncomfortable situation. So I extended grace. I also privately and gently expressed concerns when I saw or heard a recruiter in my network was supporting problematic narratives like “there’s a talent shortage but diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are not needed to address it”.

The death of George Floyd on May 25 caused that bubble to burst. With the entire world sheltering in place and watching events unfold, there was no escaping taking a side and affirming or denying that Black lives really matter.

Throughout my professional career, I never shied away from calling out racist people or practices, especially those directly tied to the hiring process. This time was different though. It was too much, and it was too often. When most people were talking about video conference fatigue, I was experiencing racism in workplace fatigue.

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Even as I write this, I struggle to trust that I could safely operate in authentic, uncensored recruiter realness and navigate hiring processes that work against my ability to do so effectively. Recruiting for organizations or being a career coach for people who don’t believe that Black lives matter was not an option, so I declined opportunities in favor of protecting my peace.

I terminated a number of professional relationships and limited the amount of engagement I had with others. In the process, over the course of just a few weeks, it became blatantly obvious who in my vast recruiting network was performative, who was real, and who was hanging around for entertainment purposes — that is, standing silently on the sidelines while other recruiting and HR leaders and I fought anti-Black racism perpetuated by the very people they celebrated. 

I was disheartened that my recruiting peers, some of whom had just recently bounced back from their own job loss, were actively promoting recruiting practices that further alienated or had greater adverse impact on job-seekers who are members of marginalized groups. They were taking for granted that everyone has the same access to opportunities, as well as giving out advice and making selfish complaints about job-seekers from a place of privilege. 

The self-proclaimed allies in recruiting who sought to absolve themselves of guilt because they hadn’t enacted the most egregious offenses were most problematic for me. The popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement seemed to bring a lot of “experts” to the forefront, people who were taking up diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) space that should have been occupied by those with the lived experiences and proven expertise to lead those efforts with integrity. While I was being called upon to share and discuss my personal experiences being micro-aggressed and discriminated against, they were afforded more opportunities to, as HR leader Sarah Morgan put it, amplify DEIB messages that favored intent over impact.

So here I am, a Black recruiter, observing my peers debate my humanity. I appreciate the ones who are removing themselves from my network because they are blatantly racist. And I’m disappointed with those who straddle the fence and waiver in their support depending on who is listening. 

This isn’t new for me, though. I’ve been Black all of my life and a recruiter about half of it. Still, I’m mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and at times even physically empty. 

Keirsten Greggs is a talent acquisition consultant and career coach. In 2017 she founded TRAP Recruiter, LLC, to bring trust, relationship-building, accountability, and a proactive approach back into the recruiting lifecycle. She engages with a broader audience via her blog, as a guest speaker, as a guest on various podcasts, facilitating workshops and training, and as creator of the #RecruiterProblems meme series.

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