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Gatekeepers to Opportunities

How Executive Recruiters’ Perception and Power Shape the Professional Outcomes of Black Applicants

Today, most corporate organizations divulge their desire for greater Black representation. However, after years of extensive promises and modest change, data suggest that organizations' willingness and desire to embrace Black applicants is predicated on more than their ethos of inclusion. It's equally grounded in their external agencies' racial palatability, especially executive search firms. Collectively these two stakeholders hold power to determine the professional obtainment of Black applicants.

Occupying a vital role in formation of executive leadership, executive search firms can either enable candidates' upward mobility or impede: act as gatekeepers. Applicants, especially historically underrepresented identities, place tremendous faith in the capacity of these organizations to recognize their proven ability and potential. These entities evaluate and offer guidance to applicants as they approach the transition to senior leadership in corporations based on their perception of the applicants. Executive recruiters' subjective views on whether an applicant is "executive material" may be obstructed by their racial biases and insensitivity. Specifically, the problem lies in the fact that the definition of talent is being promulgated by search firms, which often do not reflect the diversity organizations seeks nor have the training to ensure equity. Hence classification as a talented individual and entry to opportunities that provide access to elite executive positions often falls in the hands of individuals with homogenous experiences, identities, and perceptions.

For decades research has underscored the theory of interracial discrimination within the job search and workplace. While executive search is a specialized recruitment service, these entities can inadvertently reproduce inequality within their organization and others. Zippia utilized its database of 30 million profiles to estimate the demographics and statistics for Executive Recruiters in the United States. They found that between 2010 and 2019, the most common ethnicity for executive recruiters was White. We have seen representation growth within that same timeframe among Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations; however, Black representation has begun to decline. Additionally, on average, Black and Hispanic employees had lower salaries than their White and Asian peers. Though there is a limitation in the data regarding employment (i.e., internal executive recruiters or agency-based), these discoveries illustrate the inequalities within Black representation and experience in the workforce.

The Role of Executive Search

Like other organizations, many executive search firms turn to employee referrals for job openings. It's believed that if a valued staff member advocates for someone, one can assume that the prospective candidate is, at the very least, a cultural fit, skilled, and reliable. Unfortunately, such conduct may result in a homogenous team as people tend to associate with those most closely to themselves.  The Survey Center on American Life found that racial segregation among Americans continues to persist. Findings show more than three-quarters (77 percent) of White Americans report their core social network includes only people who were White compared to 56 percent Black Americans with social networks composed entirely of people who are also black. Outside of the occasional workplace bonding with a co-worker of a different race, individuals mostly adhere to their geographic segregation and stay socially segregated, too.  Though social segregation may or may not be intentional, its impact is profound. Limited interactions with those from differing identities limit ones' cultural competency. Then creates a heightened sense of discomfort and criticalness around those deemed as other; while equally reinforcing a well-defined and limiting exemplar of success, often through the lens of Eurocentric standards.

Moving forward to the evaluation of Black talent, we must consider how the intersectionality of identity and cultural norm may (1) inform recruiters perception of applicants' effort and potential, (2) shape the recruiters' perception of representation within the workforce, and (3) regulate the archetype of an executive. Despite the focus being on Black applicants, this phenomenon impacts a broader population, often underrepresented.

When interviews take on an interracial or cross-cultural element, differences in how we act and socialize can cause misunderstandings that result in the oversight of a candidate's experience. When it comes to the job search, we often turn to the interviewer's assumption of a candidate based on their name, educational institutions, or lack thereof. However, there are more subtle ways in which assumptions creep into interviews with applicants.

For Black and other URM applications, early in an interview, assumptions regarding a person's character, personality, and suitability can be challenged based on the candidate's appearance, behavior, and communication style. Recent research shows that Black women with natural hair are less likely to land jobs. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business reports that Black women who wore traditional Black styles including afros, twists, or braids were perceived as less professional. According to CNN, this was especially true "in industries where a more conservative appearance is common," according to CNN. Additionally, research suggests that Black CEOs with baby faces were more likely to succeed. Black CEOs with baby faces were perceived as being warmer, despite ordinarily not being seen as such. Additionally, they tend to have more opportunities to lead more prestigious organizations compared to their more mature-face Black CEOs. These findings reveal that hiring authorities are more responsive to Black applicants who present as deracialized, ultimately rendering them non-threatening.

Cross-cultural Communication

Considering communication and behavior, let's turn to the 1999 C.E. Elliott study that illuminated the cross-cultural communication style of ethnic groups in the US. Though we know Black America is not monolithic, these cultural observations were intended to generalize how Black communication behavior could be misunderstood. For example, a Black woman interviewee who is rather blunt in conversation does not mean he/she is brash or inflexible. Or a Black man that is very expressive and emotional does not equate to them being unstable and therefore unsuitable. Failure to understand modest differences in communication style can unintentionally eliminate a top candidate.   

Today Black executives make up a tiny fraction of the C-suite in America's biggest companies. There are four Black CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, and according to the Washington Post analysis, only 8 percent of "C-suite" executives are Black. As corporations continue to work on recuriting Black talent and turn to outside agencies for assistance, executive search firms must rise to the occasion.  

Action Steps

To capitalize on this opportunity, executive search firms must act intentionally and swiftly. Here are some things ZRG is committed to employing to ensure we service all stakeholders inclusively:

  • Establish an Internal and External Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice designed to examine whether parts of our hiring processes have unintentional bias built-in
  • Offer subject matter based best practices to companies around the ethos of a more inclusive and diverse workforce and place
  • Leverage the thought leadership internally by way of employee resource groups centered on key indenties, including but not limited to women, multiethinic, and LGBTQ/PRIDE
  • Provide educational opportunities  designed to empower employees to speak knowledgeably about topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging

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