Black Talent Leaders Share 4 Tactics (and 1 Huge Opportunity) to Boost Diversity and Inclusion

July 27, 2020

Photograph of man working from home on his laptop

It’s not surprising that black executives who work in HR and talent acquisition these days are tired, plain and simple. 

Melissa Thompson, the head of global talent acquisition at Nielsen, has been telling her team, “You’re in a crisis on top of a crisis.” She has been encouraging — and more recently requiring — her team to take days off and to unplug.

But though she’s tired, Melissa is also cautiously optimistic. She sees the attention and energy around the Black Lives Matter movement and believes that now has to be the time that talk becomes action. She calls this a “watershed moment” for what the workplace could and should be, a time when “there’s so much opportunity to make a difference.” 

We recently spoke with Melissa; Angelique Anderson, a regional director of human resources for H&R Block; and Lesley Toche, a former LinkedIn recruiter who is the founder of Nextplay, an organization that hosts diversity recruiting events centered on culture. We asked them their thoughts on what talent acquisition teams can do to accelerate diversity and inclusion. We also wanted to get their points of view on what the real obstacles are for D&I and what are merely misconceptions.

These leaders are clear-eyed about the challenges ahead and about the serious work that needs to be done by talent acquisition teams and companies more broadly.

Here are four tactics they suggested to bolster diversity and inclusion — and one huge opportunity they see on the near horizon:

Companies need to change how and where they look for talent because blaming the pipeline is ‘bullswanky’

There are many things that can get in the way of diversity hiring — referrals, sourcing, culture fit. But a shortage of talent isn’t among those obstacles.

“My sense,” Melissa says, “is one of the biggest myths is that diverse talent is not available. Not true. It doesn’t matter whether it’s African Americans or Hispanics in the engineering/technology space or if it’s diversity for senior leaders. ‘They’re not out there, and that’s why we can’t find them when we have the openings.’”

Melissa says she has a “technical term” for that line of excuses: “That’s bullswanky.”

Companies can extend their sourcing beyond the schools, companies, and geographies they’ve become comfortable relying on. 

“Where are you looking for talent?” Lesley asks. “Are you looking only at specific schools? That narrows a pool significantly, if you’re looking at the Ivy Leagues. Are you only hiring from specific companies? You only want talent from certain companies?But what’s their population of diverse employees?”

Recruiting teams have to recognize the shortcuts they’re taking and then decide to put in the extra effort required to increase the backgrounds and points of view at their company.

“You have to go and search and you have to hunt,” Angelique says. “You have to identify those networks and organizations and individuals who can place you in touch with underrepresented individuals.” She points to the need to look at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and to be familiar with the many organizations for professionals from underrepresented groups.

“But part of that too,” Angelique says, “is it’s really important to have a diverse TA team.” Having recruiters with a wide range of backgrounds and points of view will not only help companies think about where they recruit but how they recruit too.

‘Let’s start coloring the C-suite’

Companies frequently start their diversity efforts with entry-level hires. But that’s not always where the problem lies.

According to LeanIn’s “Women in the Workplace 2019” report, men and women from underrepresented groups represent 34% of the entry-level workforce in U.S. corporations but only 15% of the senior vice presidents and 14% of the C-suite. And the number of Black and Latino senior executives in the United States hovers at a minuscule 2% and 3%, respectively.

“Let’s start coloring the C-suite,” Angelique says. “Let’s start coloring at the senior executive level. Because if you truly want to have conversations around diversity, if you truly want to have empathetic conversations, then it’s important to be able to represent that at those levels.”

Adding diversity to a company’s senior leadership has multiple benefits: For starters, it can not only help attract talent from underrepresented groups, it can help retain that talent.

 “There needs to be more of a focus on bringing in senior talent,” Lesley says. “You can hire a university student, which is great, right? There’s a lot of talent at that level. But if you bring in one manager, the ripple effect will be huge. People will want to work for them just because they’re a Black manager and they’ve never had a Black manager before. They’ll tap into their network and it starts to scale exponentially.”

Melissa says someone from a large national retail firm told her they have their executives look at their own LinkedIn networks, which quickly illuminates why they’re struggling to find leaders from underrepresented groups.

“If you don’t have any diversity in your network,” Melissa adds, “then when you post your senior-level job, that is the reason why you don’t see diversity coming to you.”

Leaders need to ‘define what progress looks like’ and then be held accountable for achieving it

Some companies are finding success. Melissa notes that she is one of three African Americans that Nielsen has brought in at the senior vice-president level or above since the beginning of the year: “So when I hear people saying, ‘We’re still not making progress,’ I say, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s define what progress looks like and where we want to see our wins.’”

In part, Nielsen is making progress because David Kenny, the CEO, has made a personal commitment to it, naming himself Chief Diversity Officer. “There is no more powerful position than the CEO,” he says, “and, quite honestly, this isn’t going to change if the people with power don’t use that power to change it.”

Melissa points out that change also requires planning and accountability. “You actually have to make a contract with the leader that says, ‘We’ve said we believe in diversity. We’ve identified that there’s an opportunity to make your team more diverse. Let’s talk about the plan. How do we get there?’”

Once you’ve built a plan, Melissa says, you need to hold yourself accountable to it. She says that Dell and Bank of America are two companies that have done a good job of measuring leaders against their diversity plans. At Dell, for example, the company uses its annual Tell Dell employee survey to measure how every people leader in the company, from founder Michael Dell on down, is doing against the organization’s diversity and inclusion goals.

Companies need to make a ‘top-down investment’ in Black employees

It’s not enough for companies to hire Black employees. They also need to invest in them and promote them. Melissa is a huge fan of Hamilton, and she believes the song “In the Room Where It Happens” explains what often keeps Black employees from moving up. She says that CEOs and CHROs have to understand the importance of sponsorship before they hold talent reviews and succession planning discussions. “At what point,” she asks, “is there someone in that room who says, ‘We haven’t had any diversity in the leadership for that organization the last three times we’ve looked at their org charts. What are we going to do? Are we going to move somebody to make that happen?’”

When Melissa has a seat in the room, she’s taking notes, offering reminders, and asking questions: “For this division, this leadership team, there are no women. There are no people of color. When you look at the successors, there aren’t any there either. So, for this particular division, could we think about how we begin to build diversity into that succession team?”

And companies that invest — time, money, training, executive sponsorship — in their diversity efforts are much more likely to reap big returns. “When I was at LinkedIn,” Lesley says, “I started seeing the top-down investment — real investment — and not just in things that I felt were checking-the-box kind of things.” Lesley himself was asked to participate in a leadership development program called LEAD. “What I learned in that program, I still use to this day,” he says. “It just took my career to new heights.”

Remote work ‘will be a fantastic addition’ for diversity hiring

Melissa says that “what makes my heart sing” was reading her CEO telling The New York Times that COVID-19 has flipped his view on remote work.

“Remote work,” she says, “is going to be a fantastic addition of how we build diversity in teams.” Distributed work will allow recruiting teams to source, nurture, recruit, and hire talent where it lives. Not only will workplaces look different, but so will workforces.

For Melissa, these possibilities are not merely theoretical. “My TA team is already distributed,” she says. “I live in Dallas. Our headquarters is in New York. I have one recruiter there, I have one in Chicago, one in Florida, and two out in California. Practice what you preach. Model it. Show it works.”

Lesley says that the pipeline issue should be consigned to the dustbin by companies embracing remote work. “Where do most tech companies like to hire from?” he asks. “From the Bay Area. What’s the Black population of the Bay Area?” Less than 7%. Which does not make it the fertile ground for recruiting new Black talent that, say, Detroit, Baltimore, or New Orleans would be. “Now,” Lesley says, “you can find people in Atlanta, New York, all the cities where Black and Brown people live.”

Companies that carry over some version of remote work beyond the current lockdowns will be able to ratchet up their addressable markets, not just for tech roles, but for every kind of position.

Final thoughts: ‘This is a watershed moment’

The current confluence of crises presents an opportunity for profound and sweeping reinvention, for the world of work to be completely reimagined.

Angelique says it’s the time for HR and TA professionals “to be bold,” to initiate the uncomfortable conversations at work, and to keep those conversations going. “My fear,” she says, “is that what’s happening right now could potentially become the flavor of the month. But it is important for so many reasons beyond what we’re seeing on TV to keep these conversations going and to really just make them a part of our story.”

Melissa, too, feels that the global focus on Black Lives Matter exhorts talent acquisition professionals to seize the day.

“This is a watershed moment,” Melissa says. “For talent acquisition, it’s the part where we stop talking about what we’re going to do and actually doing and measuring and seeing the impact. If we don’t act in this space where there’s so much opportunity to make a difference, then we don’t deserve to be in the chairs that we’re in.”

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