Employers need to be ready for a new set of questions on diversity and inclusion practices. For all its shortcomings, 2020 hopefully will be remembered as a year in which mutual respect and empathy were energized through increased momentum for diversity and inclusion initiatives. This is especially important in the HR function, particularly in the interview process for new employees. I saw this happening firsthand at Norfolk State University (NSU), a historically Black college in Virginia, where I have the honor to serve as a member of the School of Business Board of Advisors. I’m sharing the following story because it’s indicative of a shift in how the traditional interview is performed and why employers should be prepared for the change.
This fall, Glenn Carrington, Dean of the NSU School of Business, wanted to better understand how his students had been processing social unrest, and how they might, in turn, enhance their understanding of where potential employers stand on key issues. So he took an untraditional approach to help business students who were interviewing for jobs assess which organizations “walk the talk” around inclusiveness and equity.
In his classes this semester, he reoriented the interviewee-thought process so students were in the driver’s seat, better enabling them to choose a company — and a population of managers and colleagues — who are actually living their stated commitments to build safe, inspiring and fair-minded workplaces that promote a sense of belonging and inclusion. In an interesting twist, Dean Carrington urged students to play a proactive role in their decision. “What are the questions you would most like to pose to the people you will be working for, and with?” he asks, “Then gauge the credibility of the situation for yourself.”
There was no hesitation from the students. Below is a sampling of questions from the discussion, which, of course, can also be applied beyond racial minorities to other potentially excluded groups. He also shared with the NSU Board of Advisors, comprising business leaders from a wide range of industries, a timely and instructive exercise by asking the following:
- You told me about your diversity and inclusion policies, but now I’d like to hear about other African Americans who work here or have worked here. What was their journey like? How many are in positions of senior responsibility? How many are on your board? What is your minority retention rate overall? Can I speak with a current or former minority employee?
- Do you hold your employees accountable for how they respond to social injustice? For example, are there penalties of some kind imposed on those who express racist or other discriminatory behavior? If not, how do you recognize genuine and positive D&I contributions?
- How do minority employees develop relationships with non-minorities in your organization?
- Do both minorities and non-minorities act as mentors and advocates for strong performers, coaching or sponsoring them for new job assignments, promotions and salary increases?
- I’ve always been told I should never discuss subjects such as politics and religion in the workplace. But I want to know before I take a job somewhere if you are committed to diversity and inclusion. How do you feel about discussing these topics with me?
- Will I be allowed to bring my true self to work — how I dress, wear my hair, celebrate traditions? Or is there a gold standard for really fitting in?
- If I am having what I perceive to be a “racial” or other “social justice” issue with my boss, will I be viewed as a troublemaker? Is there an independent person with whom I can speak confidentially about the matter? How does that work?
- Can my journey and current circumstances help the company do a better job supporting people like me? What can I do to make a difference?
Any one of these questions would take many interviewers out of their comfort zone, but the NSU Board found the discussion to be an eye-opening, mind-expanding experience that bears sharing.
This shift in perspective is not just limited to the virtual classrooms of NSU. Organizations that wish to stay relevant need to be ready to answer these questions with honesty and transparency. The traditional process of solely vetting a candidate’s experience and potential in a certain field has been replaced with a two-way conversation, where the candidate is interviewing the organization as much as the other way around.
Just as interviewees prepare by recalling past experiences to share that will back up their skills, interviewers also need to prepare for these valid questions. HR managers should have on hand specific examples, personal anecdotes and hard numbers on the diversity of the company to back up descriptions of the organization’s progressive culture. The saying, “Don’t just tell me, show me,” can easily be applied here.
For me, the NSU exercise convincingly demonstrated the need for organizations to focus less on impressing candidates and more on allowing candidates to express themselves. That’s not to say it isn’t important to drive home cutting-edge codes of conduct and hold discussions on valuing differences. Everything we can do to open the lines of communication and promote understanding is worthwhile. But we also need to be sure we give all job seekers the “safe space” to ask heartfelt questions about their fears and aspirations. And then be prepared to answer them.