Chief Executive Insights

There Are Things Only Business Can Do About Race: Five Tips to Hiring Black Talent

  • I am a CEO of a private middle market company.  Like many other business leaders, I struggle with my role in the often-divisive conversations on racial equity and social justice. 
  • I am CEO to all our employees and not just those who are Black. The challenges also seem so large and complex. The tone and tenor of the conversations trouble me. 
  • People seem more interested in lobing labels than talking, hearing and working together to solve challenges.  It is easy to become discouraged and disgusted with the entire topic. Yet the challenge of race in our county will not go away and it is costing us all in many ways.  

I spent the last few years doing my own research and allowing this new knowledge to inform my personal reflection. What is clear to me now is we, as business leaders, have a unique opportunity to contribute to the solutions needed to close the gaps between Blacks and Whites.  We can start with our sphere of influence and providing opportunity is at the center of our sphere.

I understand most business leaders don’t oppose hiring and promoting Black people. Our networks, biases, preferences, systems, and experiences create a context where it just does not happen naturally. Simply not being against hiring and promoting Blacks won’t be enough to change things. We must be for it—intentionally.

I have been specific with my focus on Black people and there is a practical reason. Please do not misunderstand my position. Our history has shown without this focus, Blacks will fare worse than any other group. Not a coincidence. Not because of Black behavior. Rather, it is due to the construct on which we built our country. I hope you can hear this without it sounding like an excuse. If you cannot then I simply ask that you trust I have done the research. Also know the mindsets and approaches I am proposing are not only good for Black people; they also represent best practices and will have positive effects on ALL people, your company culture and your overall business performance.

Here are my tips for hiring Black talent:

  1. Check your personal implicit bias.
    It is hard to seriously consider Black talent if your initial thoughts are negative. My experience with many business leaders makes me aware of your common reaction to the idea of considering Blacks for virtually anything that matters to you. Whether always expressed or not, you often have a concern about lowering the bar on quality. My friend, there is nothing inherent in our race that makes a Black person less qualified than a White person.
  2. Get clear about what really matters.
    I invite you to question how you define quality or fit or best candidate. Selection criteria tend to show up in three levels. First is what you need to get the job done, which is typically a set of skills and abilities. The need can also include hard-to-capture behaviors such as adaptability, judgment, resourcefulness, and determination. Second are nice-to-have elements believed to enhance a person’s ability to contribute. These are often less concrete and less proven as success factors. They include graduating from a particular ilk of school, having a college degree, or participating in established professional affiliations. The third are things you are used to and therefore prefer. Although they almost never matter to performance. These preferences include dialect, attire, handshake, hairstyles, tattoo placement, etc.
    Ask the calibrating questions.
    Is what you want based solely on what you need?
    Or is it based more on what you are comfortably used to having?
  3. Create your own demand for Black talent.
    What would happen if you made Black talent a part of your search expectations for positions you are looking for? What if you told the search firm and human resources department you expected to see Black talent as a part of your slate of people to consider? The National Football League (NFL) did something similar to this in 2003. It became known as the Rooney Rule, named for the Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Dan Rooney.
    The approach was straightforward. Teams had to interview at least one candidate of color for any open head coaching job. Minority coaches were 19% to 21% more likely to be hired as a head coach after the 2003 Rooney Rule than before. Those successful coaches did not suddenly become more qualified after the rule came in; they simply got more opportunities. The NFL did not dictate who got hired, yet the expectation of an interview alone changed the outcomes.
  4. Be willing to get familiar with people you may not have considered before.
    You may have to look in places you have not looked before. For example, I chuckle when people feel the need to remind me they hire for highly technical positions, and Blacks are just not pursuing those types of degrees. Yet, they have not decided to recruit interns and new hires from technically focused Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
    Legend has it when bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he answered, “Because that’s where the money is.” Although HBCUs are only 3% of colleges and universities, they produce 27% of Black students with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. You say you want to add Black talent to your team, but you won’t recruit at HBCUs? Is it because what you are used to is more important than what you say you want?
  5. Protect against the impact of bias in the organization.
    Bias is happening everywhere virtually all of time. And racial biases can be some of the most entrenched and hardest to recognize. We can mitigate many of the negative effects of bias through our systems. Review the intake processes involved with hiring employees. The goal is to identify and then strip away as much opportunity for bias as you can.
    For example, our construction company works hard to have a diverse committee of interviewers involved in every hire. The final decision is up to the hiring manager, but the committee provides a broader, potentially less biased evaluation of the candidate than a single interviewer. This approach does presuppose you have enough racial and other diversity in the organization to make it practical. We have also used board members and other advisors to augment our interview committees.
    The same approach can be used when evaluating people for a promotion or a role in leadership. A diverse group of reviewers will provide a more robust evaluation of a candidate’s performance. For example, the senior managers in our organization debate candidates for promotion as they are presented. They also have the opportunity to ask why those not presented are not moving forward in their careers. This transparency helps with trust and lowers the likelihood that one leader’s implicit bias is holding an employee back.

We as business leaders do have a role in this often-volatile conversation about race. We can start with our own spheres of influence. I realize the absence of Black talent at all levels of an organization is likely not intentional, but that is my point. We will have to be intentional. If it were going to happen naturally it would have already happened. The difference we can make is real and tangible. Like most things that matter, it starts with leadership. Therefore, it starts with you and me.


Written by Melvin Gravely.

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Melvin Gravely
Melvin Gravely is the author of the new book, Dear White Friend: The Realities of Race, the Power of Relationships and Our Path to Equity. He is the majority owner and CEO of a commercial construction company in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has chaired the board of the Cincinnati Regional Chamber of Commerce, served on the board of the United Way, and was a founding board member of the Cincinnati Regional Economic Development Initiative (REDI Cincinnati). He also chaired the Cincinnati Regional Business Committee, a group of 100 middle market CEOs working collectively toward meaningful civic action.


Melvin Gravely is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.