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Stop Talking About the Rooney Rule

Magical thinking will not move the needle on your diversity efforts, or your career, if your leadership is not accountable for results.

Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious — and based on his 17 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.


Over the weekend I received an email from a diversity consultant who wanted to "depoliticize" my column about Rex Tillerson and his speech on race and diversity management at the State Department.

Secretary Tillerson talked about using the "Rooney Rule" in the State Department. That "rule" is nothing more than magical thinking in most circumstances.

Background: Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, in 2003, made it a policy to interview one "minority" for every coaching position. It was a result of bad publicity following two prominent Black coaches being fired, despite winning records. Attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran later underscored the perception of discrimination by writing a study documenting how Black head coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired.

Because overt discrimination is costly in the public sphere, the Rooney Rule was instituted and fines were levied against two teams who did not interview a minority candidate for a coaching position.

But racism is persistent. Here are the results 16 years later: 70 percent of football players are Black, 20 percent of quarterbacks are Black, 10 percent of coaches are Black, 0 percent of owners are Black.

The very definition of antebellum plantations.

Are Black people too stupid to be coaches or quarterbacks? Charles Murray or the Freakonomics racists might say yes, but here's the truth — interviewing someone who was not as prepared as everyone else being interviewed is a set up for failure. Quietly, behind closed doors and closed minds, the results will be attributed to race and/or gender (in a corporate setting). But the truth is that preparing people for management positions is management's responsibility — and if management is all white men, what is the real color of failure?

If you don't give your people equitable opportunities to be assigned responsibilities that lead to leadership positions, don't have discipline in your mentoring, don't have an executive diversity council to oversee and hold accountable the process, you will produce the same results you currently have in most companies: white men in almost all positions of responsibility. That is the case at ExxonMobil, that is the case in the State Department, that is the case in most corporations, and under current leadership direction, it will never change. Never.

Regarding "depoliticizing" my initial column, you can't depoliticize this subject. Counting enslaved Black people as three-fifths of a human being is politicizing race (Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution). In the recent past, with a Black president, corporate diversity leaders could all try to nudge and wink at recalcitrant white executives in an effort to make progress without rocking the boat too much — but that hasn't worked. There has been very little progress for diversity outside of the DiversityInc Top 50.

Soft-pedaling this subject and expecting progress while attempting to not hurt any feelings by "depoliticizing" diversity is impossible with white supremacy, neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates being tacitly (and at times bluntly) endorsed by the president.

Here's an example — a prominent CEO posted a diversity statement for a public website. From the CEO's statement: "The despicable conduct of hate groups in Charlottesville last weekend, and the violence and death that resulted from it, shows yet again that our nation needs to focus on unity, inclusion, and tolerance." Two sentences later the CEO wrote this: "We have worked with every U.S. president since Woodrow Wilson."

Two comments:

1. "Tolerance" of hate groups or of those who do is acceptance and endorsement of hate groups. If you are going to "tolerate" me because of who or what I am, please know your tolerance is belittling and humiliating. I can tolerate lima beans in a stew. I do not have the imprimatur to "tolerate" another human being; nobody does.

2. Woodrow Wilson was the worst racist to ever occupy the White House. He was a horrible, horrible man. Either the CEO does not know American history or is sending a dog whistle to the White House, which is currently occupied by a white supremacist. By the way, the CEO is a member of a well-known sexist golf club.

Either way, it's wrong. And here is this CEO's diversity results: A leadership team (19 people) that is 5 percent non-white, 26 percent women.

Should you work for people like this? What does their leadership say about the future of this company? Their innovation? Their commitment to ethical behavior? Their stock is down for both one-year and five-year periods. Magical thinking does not increase stock prices, either.

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