Race and Hiring: Is Bias Holding You Back from Building a Powerful Organization?

Q&A with Leniece F. Brissett, Founder and CEO, Compass Talent Group 

As Founder and CEO for Compass Talent Group, EP Alumna Leniece F. Brissett seeks the best leaders for schools, districts, and education nonprofits. In her work, she focuses particularly on recruiting and placing leaders of color, and helps her clients build more inclusive hiring practices. As Leniece points out, diversity isn’t a “nice-to-have”—it’s an essential asset for high-performing organizations.

Recently, Leniece published an article online, “The Subconscious Advantage of Whiteness in Hiring,” which quickly skyrocketed. The thousands of views, comments, and “likes” that her post have received show that she’s leading an important and timely conversation about the role that race plays in hiring.

Leniece will serve as a panelist at #EP2016 this November and share her expertise about hiring, diversity, and inclusion.


1| You recently published a piece, “The Subconscious Advantage of Whiteness in Hiring” where you talk about what you’ve witnessed in recruitment, selection, and hiring processes. What led you to write the piece, and why now?

Early this year I attended the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit (an annual invitation-only gathering for education leaders), where the conversations focused on race and equity in public education. I was really moved. My takeaways were that (1) I really need to focus on staying woke, and (2) I need to focus on putting more skin in the game. In my work, having a seat at the table with CEOs, Executive Directors, and boards of directors is a rare privilege. I want to use my position to address the “isms” that prevent organizations from hiring talented people and particularly leaders of color.

Why now? I sat on the piece for over a month before publishing it. It took me that long to muster up the courage to release it—and there are a lot of reasons for that. There’s a negative impact in talking about race as a person of color or as a woman, and I’m both. The potential downside to speaking up seemed really great. But as I looked at the movements happening across the country for equity in the workplace, criminal justice reform, and educational equity, I realized that if I didn’t speak up it would be akin to complacency.


2| In the piece, you write about a comment that you’ve heard from numerous clients: “the [candidate] pool is very diverse and I want you to know diversity is important, but quality matters most.” Let’s unpack that statement – what’s the implication of that comment? What do you hear when a client says that to you?

When someone says “the candidate pool is very diverse and I want you to know diversity is important, but…” it’s a negative connotation. The assumption is that diversity and quality are mutually exclusive. It’s a sticky point, which I tried to highlight at the beginning of the post with the quote I included:

“I noticed there are a lot of white candidates in the pipeline, but are they ‘qualified’?” — said no organization, ever.

I wanted to be intentionally provocative and flip that quote on its head to make it obvious how offensive it is. In hiring and selection, it’s really rare to hear “There are a lot of male candidates or a lot of white candidates—I hope they’re qualified and we’re not lowering the bar.”

It also treats diversity as if it’s a charitable act or a “nice to have”—as if diversity isn’t an essential asset with many tangible benefits. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of a diverse organization. A McKinsey study showed that diverse organizations are financially stronger. Ethnically diverse organizations are 35% more likely to outperform organizations that aren’t ethnically diverse. Diverse organizations also have higher retention, better collaboration and problem solving, and those benefits are transferrable to the education sector.

When you look at the education sector itself, and at US public schools, the majority of students are students of color. But when we look at the leaders, teachers, principals, nonprofit CEOs, and board members, there’s an imbalance that leadership isn’t reflective of the students and communities they serve.

It’s a missed opportunity when we talk about diversity, and individuals say “it’s important, but…” because they’ve missed out on the fact that diversity is the real key part of problem solving.


3| You refer to key phrases that you’ve heard as reasons for why a hiring organization might indicate their preference for a candidate – including “culture fit”, “quality” and “my gut.” You also note that these phrases are often euphemisms for race. How do you help clients navigate their biases, conscious or unconscious?

Before I partner with an organization, I believe it’s important to be forthright with prospective clients about who Compass Talent Group is, our mission, and our values to make sure we’re completely aligned. I founded Compass Talent Group three years ago, rooted in the belief that the most difficult challenges in education can be solved when you have leaders at the table who bring diverse thinking and are from diverse backgrounds and communities. That’s our passion, our mission.

Before we even partner with an organization, we want to be clear that this is our approach and lens. On the clients’ side, we want to really understand why diversity matters for them. Is it “sexy” or a buzzword that’s really hot right now, or has an organization really reflected on and grappled with what diversity means for them at all levels of the organization. Then we do a consultation to assess mutual fit. That’s where things start. We’re all on the same page, and we work carefully to use calibration tools to remove gut judgement out of hiring.

When individuals hire, including me, we invite a lot of subjectivity. So instead, at Compass Talent, we rely on data. We make sure that we’re using rubrics, that there are multiple stakeholders who are part of the process, and that candidates are being assessed in a multidimensional way.

For instance, during an initial phone screen, oftentimes hiring managers open up with really general questions that are very broad. What we’ve found is when you open with, “tell me about yourself,” there are so many opportunities for a candidate to go in different directions when they answer it. That makes it hard to assess what solid response is, and hard to compare candidates with each other because their responses are so varied. Instead, we ask pointed questions that are designed around the skills we’re looking for.

It’s a collaborative process. I’m an active thought partner with our client to make sure we understand their perspective, in addition to sharing their lens.


4| What are some of the ways that organizations can identify their own biases to ensure they’re aware of them during hiring processes?

Many organizations are really well intentioned in terms of where they are regarding awareness of bias -- there’s a spectrum. Some organizations are deeply reflective and further along in examining bias and how it plays out, and have put a lot of resources to ensuring they’re developing fair evaluation tools. Other organizations are really striving to have a diverse and inclusive workplace and don’t know how to get there and need more support. For these organizations, I mentioned a few resources in the piece that was published on Medium. Start with the “why”—why diversity matters, and why it’s important—and be really clear on that. If you’re not clear, it won’t be a priority. Not just in terms of diversity, but also in having an equitable and fair selection process.

There are a couple of things that organizations can do to identify bias. One is to take an implicit bias test. The first step is to do an internal assessment as an organization, and then as an individual on the hiring team. The tests look at many dimensions of diversity, including race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

Next, organizations can ask what their leadership looks like, and what their current state of diversity and inclusion is. What’s the climate like? What’s the perception internally and externally? When you think about your organization, is it “everyone has this pedigree,” or “everyone has gone through these organizations and channels [before working here],” and everyone is pretty homogenous. Understand the current state and set a clear vision for what the desired state would look like.

Lastly, examine the selection process. If you’re recruiting diverse leaders in the selection process and for whatever reason why they’re not being hired, figure out where they’re falling out in process. Is it a bias issue, or something else in play? You may have candidates of color who get an offer but may not accept it--did they get a more competitive offer, was their candidacy not cultivated, did they not feel welcome?

There are numerous ways to identify bias and build a more inclusive selection process.


5| Beyond the hiring process, how do biases play out in the workplace? For instance, you tell the story of a woman of color named Naima (not her real name) who had to jump through far more hoops than other candidates to land a job. But once she got the job, the organization was elated with her performance and expressed gratitude to you for placing her there. On the flip side of that, what was Naima’s perspective? Was she equally elated with the organization once she started working there?

I was impressed with Naima’s poise, professionalism and tenacity throughout the selection process. We expressed what the selection process would look like from the beginning because transparency is important. Even when the process went over timelines or included several more steps, I was impressed with how poised she was. At one point, she sent the hiring manager a professional email, saying in much more eloquent words something along the lines of, “I realize that you may have some hesitation about bringing me on board, and I wanted to provide you with more work samples, and reiterate my excitement about the opportunity.” She recognized that something was going on.

When Naima got the offer, she accepted it. But what should have been joyous occasion of starting a new job with organization she was passionate about, it was somewhat shadowed by the feeling of, “I really have to prove myself when I start this job.” In some ways, she felt like she had an uphill battle. The hiring manager ended up becoming her manager, and Naima could feel that she wasn’t 100% sold. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in as a new hire. But now she’s been there for over a year and is a high performer. The hiring manager has been overjoyed with having her on board. Fortunately, Naima looks back and laughs at the experience. She saw it as a personal challenge. She knew her hiring manager had doubts, and was ready to prove herself.


6| Your piece was popular on Medium, with over 450 shares and 45+ comments to date. What has the general reaction you’ve received about the piece been? Was any of it surprising?

My intention was to build awareness about hiring and spark a productive dialogue around the issues and how organizations can improve their hiring processes. I’ve been really shocked by the response; this is the first piece I’ve published.

On LinkedIn the post has over 55,000 views, 4,300 likes and 530 comments, and it was also published on Vox. It’s been shocking and for the most part, the response has been positive. What I’ve been hearing a lot of is people reaching out and sharing their own experiences. Like from someone who had to interview seven separate times before he was hired at Microsoft. It’s bittersweet to hear my observations confirmed. It’s much more widespread than I hoped it to be.

There’s been some backlash—some knee-jerk reactions, mud-slinging, and vitriolic comments that have been shared. That all comes with the territory. But I’m open to criticism that is constructive.

It’s been really exciting to be a conduit for this really needed conversation. A colleague who’s a principal at a charter management organization shared the piece with his chief talent officer, who then shared it with his entire staff. It’s making its rounds. It stirred up the pot a bit but overall it has been positive and productive. My hope is that it continues to push organizations that are in and outside of the education sector.

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