A recent poll conducted by Pew Research asked people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political affiliations how they feel about race and ethnicity playing a part in hiring decisions and career advancement.

The survey revealed that for most people it’s okay to talk about and promote diversity at work but prefer to let their qualifications drive career growth even if it means less diverse workplaces. The poll states that 75% of all people polled felt it was important for companies to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace.

Yet, 74% of white people, 54% of people of black people, 69% of Hispanic people, 62% of Democrats, and 90% of Republicans felt that considering race and ethnicity in hiring and promotion decisions was wrong.   

Talk is cheap

Simply stated, it is okay to talk about diversity but, when it comes down to implementation to increase diversity, there is a common opinion within the poll to achieve it “organically”. A passive approach to diversity is not the way forward. Deconstructing and taking a hard look at the reality of why these initiatives exist is a great place to begin on the road to buy-in, adoption, and implementation.

The most shocking part of the Pew poll was how few people of color were in support of race and ethnicity fueling hiring decisions to increase diversity in the workplace. This does beg the question, where were the polls conducted? It’s not clear in the polling data. The effects of unconscious bias affect most women and people of color.

However, conscious bias tends to be more prevalent in parts of the country that not only have a white cis male majority in the workplace but also have a history of significant issues with race. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that 10 out of 14 southern states did not receive a grade higher than a D revealing that “working women in the South suffer some of the harshest inequalities in the U.S., not only in terms of how much they are paid, but how they are treated in the workforce”.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives often have murky beginnings because they require extremely intentional hiring decisions, onboarding, and program implementation to achieve diversity and foster inclusion. To move away from simply embracing the idea of diversity and, instead, actively focus on practical implementation, we also have to be sensitive and aware of the diversity hire experience. Well-intentioned quotas and inclusive hiring decisions (though necessary) often have adverse effects on those hired.  As a queer black woman with a myriad of qualifications in my field, I, too, can admit how the icky feeling of tokenism can play a big part in ultimately being chosen for a role to bolster diversity efforts.

The unspoken, intricate dilemma

The road to diversity should include more than the already emerging and necessary employee resource groups and thought leadership panels. People hired through D&I initiatives face an intricate ethical dilemma. On one hand, a promotion can be exhilarating. On the other hand, dealing with the many facets of the underlying reason behind the golden ticket can be difficult.

The need to over perform and overextend due to imposter-like feelings can compromise the experience of an organization’s first or early diversity hire.  More often than we admit – regardless of achievements, merit, or experience – the need to be “granted a seat at the table” impacts some people of color with valid feelings of resentment.   

People of color have a complex experience entering these arenas due to race and/or generational ownership of executive positions, primarily held by white men. Keeping overall impact top of mind when implementing or discussing strategy is just one way we can move through the uncomfortable parts of tackling diversity and continue to have meaningful conversations.

Through this lens, it may be easier to understand why a majority of people of color polled reported a preference for qualifications being the sole consideration in career advancement decisions. Especially, if they feel considerations of race could have counted against them.

While there are more people of color with access and power in areas of tech, business, and finance than ever, there is still a level of influence gained only through being seen and then extended career advancement opportunities by our white counterparts — regardless of allyship — who continue to dominate the top tiers of most industries. Additionally, a person of color may feel uneasy about opportunities being extended to them by a white person who holds the keys.

As an early diversity hire, many people of color may feel the weight of powering through these feelings if it means being able to hold the door open for future black and brown generations. This phenomenon, while less than palatable, is unavoidable and often hard to digest within most diversity initiatives.

While it is a valid feeling for a person to want to lean on their qualifications when being considered for a new role or promotion, it is also true that people of color learn that race will either give one a perceived, undeserved leg up in landing a job or will ultimately cause one to lose out on a position. Brittan Oliver writes, “From childhood, black girls and boys are told by our parents that we have to work twice as hard and be twice as good in order to get the same opportunities as our white peers.

Once we enter the real world, we learn that twice as good isn’t okay, we really have to be extraordinary.” In 2019, to be extraordinary is still key but because of the flood of DE&I initiatives, for the first time in history, aside from affirmative action, to be a person of color has the potential to be beneficial when applying for a job. While it’s complicated, if we are able to provide safe spaces to discuss the candidate experience and give a voice to those whom D&I initiatives are designed to serve, it’s worth traversing the muddy waters to get there.