Lisa Bryant has a master’s degree in communications and a résumé full of experience. But after getting laid off during the 2008 recession, she struggled to land a full-time job with the pay and benefits that matched her skills.

“I sent out résumés, I’d go through multiple interviews and think: Yes! I have this job,” she said. “But it just didn’t happen.”

Something more subtle and insidious may have been at play for Bryant — racial bias.

“I’m a woman of color in a predominantly white field,” Bryant said, who is black. “There were times when I walked in the room and things changed. Maybe, because my name is Lisa Bryant, I wasn’t who they expected. Once I sense that, I start fumbling my words and everything goes downhill.”

Despite decades of training programs and talk of diversifying the workforce, study after study shows that efforts to reduce racial bias have failed to meaningfully change the status quo.

With national and international protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police a month ago, businesses of all sizes are re-examining the persistent presence of systemic racism.

In a survey of 150 companies released last week by the global hiring firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 85% of human resource managers said they had discussed Floyd’s death with their teams. Nearly 60% had scheduled ongoing discussions of race.

“Leadership seems to understand the importance of recruiting diverse candidates, but do not view executing on this as a problem in their talent pipelines,” Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said of his firm’s findings. “They seem to ignore the hiring biases in place that are impacting recruiting diverse candidates.”

It’s a scenario Shawn Lewis has seen play out as a former workforce manager at the Urban League Twin Cities and in decades of working with organizations on economic and social equity.

“Our system is closed and people don’t want about talk about it,” Lewis said. “People hire people who reflect their values, reflect their culture, who they understand and are comfortable with. Usually it’s people who look like them.”

Lewis, who also is black, has known Bryant since college. He saw her determination as she juggled several consulting jobs with small nonprofits, picked up freelance writing jobs and resorted to getting part-time work as a Walmart cashier and a call center worker to pay the bills.

When he heard about a well-paying job at a company whose leader had been talking for years about hiring more people of color, he urged that executive to talk to Bryant.

“I look at my own career path and I always had an advocate,” Lewis said. “If you don’t have that advocate you’re lost. You’re out there looking for a job and it’s a shot in dark.”

Facing hard truth

The executive Lewis introduced to Bryant, Mike Harley, for 24 years has led Environmental Initiative, a Minneapolis-based firm that works with businesses and government on environmental issues. A few years ago, Harley said the 22-person company had what he called “a moment of reckoning.”

“We had to confront this reality that communities of color — Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics — suffer a disproportionate share of pollution and the health impacts,” he said. “How is it that the people most impacted by the focus of our work are not represented inside organizations that are advocating for the change?”

Harley described the disconnection as an existential problem for what has been a “white-led movement” of environmentalists.

“What is it that results in a mostly white staff, with rooms full of mostly white people — mostly men, mostly older, mostly college educated, mostly urban?” he asked.

Harley made a deliberate effort to expand his network, get to know people of color. That’s when he met Lewis, who is an environmental justice consultant.

“I’ll be honest,” Harley said. “He and other leaders were quite critical of an organization that professed to be concerned with equity, yet still was lagging in a staff that reflects the kind of racial and cultural diversity we need to be impactful.”

In response to such criticism, Harley took a hard look at the words his organization used in job postings and saw shortcomings.

“The language we use makes a lot of sense to us. It comes from a particular profile in society, mostly white, generally with a particular education and work path,” he said. “It’s not so much that we don’t hire people of color — they don’t apply. They look at it and say ‘It’s not for me.’ ”

Harley’s sense is that for lasting change to occur, white business executives and policymakers must lead the way.

When Lewis heard that Environmental Initiative was looking for a new communications manager this spring, he told Harley about Bryant. “She may not have all the things you want, but get to know her so that when it’s time to make a hire, you’re not coming in cold,” Lewis recalls telling Harley.

Bryant and Harley met. And two weeks ago, Bryant started the job, becoming for now the firm’s only black employee.

“It’s a position outside my area of focus,” she said. “But through the link with Shawn, we realized it’s a good fit.”

Harley said it’s not lost on him that it took someone like Lewis to explain that just because Bryant didn’t check all the boxes of a traditional hire — she had no experience in environmental work — that she was worth interviewing.

“She didn’t see our job posting randomly and respond,” Harley said. “It was put in front of her by someone whom she trusted. And her résumé was put in front of us by someone we trusted.”

Change takes time

As business leaders take time to assess unconscious biases in their hiring practices and workplace culture, he cautions that it may take time to make lasting change.

“For us, it took patience to try to understand what about our organization creates barriers and to deeply examine what might be producing these hiring patterns,” he said. “Especially now, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, there’s an urgency to make change now. But sincerely getting at deep culture — that’s long work.”

Lewis said business leaders and recruiters have to think about racial bias whenever hiring decisions are made.

“It has to be conscious, because good people are otherwise going to be denied and locked out,” he said. “There may be gaps in experience that shouldn’t be held against people.”

Bryant said the long job search taught her about the value of networking.

“I always thought, I can sell myself, I’ve shown I know how to get the job done for these organizations, and this is going to get me a job” she said. “What I wasn’t doing, was connecting with the right people. I wasn’t in [professional organizations] and networking. I think you do need to have a connection, someone who can make the link for you.”

 

Twitter: @JackieCrosby