Black Professionals Are Underrepresented in HR. Could Changing That Help Close the Employment Gap?

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No segment of American society has been immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Black workers have been hit particularly hard. When the earliest days of the pandemic set off a wave of business closures and job losses, unemployment among Black Americans hit 16.7 percent, compared to 14.7 percent for white Americans.

Even now, as the first anniversary of the pandemic looms, the unemployment rate sits at 9.2 percent for Black Americans, compared to 5.7 percent for white Americans.

But this disparity is nothing new. In an article for the Center for American Progress, economist Olugbenga Ajilore reports that, between 1972 and 2019, the Black unemployment rate was consistently twice as high as the white unemployment rate.

Why has the disparity persisted for so long? Ajilore summarizes the matter succinctly: “African Americans have long been excluded from opportunities for upward mobility, stuck instead in low-wage occupations that do not offer the protections of labor laws, such as those focused on collective bargaining, overtime, and the minimum wage. Unsurprisingly, this history of structural racism has created gaps in labor market outcomes between African Americans and whites.”

But the times are, supposedly, changing. During the historic Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, we saw scores of major brands express their support for the racial justice movement. Techniques for battling unconscious bias are a constant topic of discussion among business leaders. Research repeatedly shows that more diverse workforces deliver better financial performances, and investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts appear to be rising.

The bad news is that, for all the buzz, employment disparities between Black and white Americans still exist. That might be because we’ve failed to build more diverse workforces where they matter most: in HR and recruiting.

2020: A Banner Year for DE&I, or Nothing but Talk?

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, company after company spoke up in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement — but recent research suggests few organizations actually walked the walk.

A 2021 survey of Black professionals in technology, law, consulting, finance, accounting, and advertising conducted by the networking app Fishbowl found that only 23 percent feel satisfied with their workplaces’ DE&I initiatives. Seventy-four percent of Black professionals also reported feeling pressure to change their behavior and appearance to fit in at work. Only 29.5 percent said they felt their companies would do the right thing if they reported racism at work.

Why are we failing so badly?

HR Is ‘Overwhelmingly White’

Consider a 2020 survey conducted by market research firm Clutch, according to which 79 percent of HR pros believe their companies are diverse, yet only 17 percent said they support increased recruiting of more diverse candidates.

The demographics of the HR field itself might offer some insights into this curious disconnect. To quote Lisa Burden of HR Dive, HR teams are “overwhelmingly white.” Reporting on a 2018 survey from Namely, Burden notes 65 percent of HR pros are white. Asian and Hispanic professionals make up the second- and third-largest demographic groups, respectively. Black professionals are noticeably absent, despite being one of the largest population groups in America.

A 2018 report from workforce management software Workforce surfaced similar findings: 77.4 percent of HR managers are white, while 11.8 percent are Black. As proportions of the US population, white professionals are overrepresented among HR managers, and Black professionals are underrepresented.

It’s a little harder to find demographic specifics for the recruiting industry, but we can make some informed guesses based on overall patterns of business ownership. According to Brian K. Marshall, director of entrepreneurship at BCL of Texas, 9.5 percent of all US businesses are owned by Black people, while 70.9 percent are owned by white people. Staggeringly, white-owned businesses make 88 percent of overall sales and control 86.5 percent of US employment. Meanwhile, Black businesses account for only 1.3 percent of total American sales and 1.7 percent of US employment.

If we assume similar ownership, employment, and revenue trends prevail in recruiting, then it’s likely that more companies are utilizing white-owned recruiting firms than Black-owned ones.

Why does all of this matter? If Black people are underrepresented among the ranks of those who make key decisions about sourcing and vetting talent — that is, HR pros and recruiters — then it should come as little surprise that corporate DE&I efforts are falling short. We can engage in all the awareness-raising discussions we want; we can hold endless training sessions aimed at undoing unconscious biases. As long as our HR and recruiting teams are overwhelmingly white, the most important voices will be muffled in — or even absent from — the conversations driving DE&I hiring strategies.

We know that organizations can better serve their customers when their workforces reflect the diversity of their clientele. That’s because a diversity of perspectives is more conducive to innovative problem-solving, and because diverse workforces are better positioned to understand and respond to the varied needs of a diverse customer base. The same principle applies to DE&I initiatives in hiring. If we want to source, engage, accurately assess, and hire a diverse array of employees, we need HR and recruiting teams that reflect the diverse makeups of our talent pools.

By Matthew Kosinski