When Research Uncovers Racism

Here’s a difficult topic to discuss, but absolutely necessary to address. We, as sourcers are usually the first line of contact in the talent acquisition process. We search for candidates all day and we usually look at multiple sites in order to get a complete picture of the candidate. Their LinkedIn profile might only have company and job title, but their Twitter profile could have a link to their personal programming blog. Reading their blog post on SW development could give the sourcer, recruiter and hiring manager an inside look into their thought process.

Besides using sourcing for candidate profiling, sometimes the company’s HR researchers will research potential hires before the paperwork is signed. Usually this is done within the HR team but sourcing can also get involved. Sourcers are the detectives for talent acquisition.

The Elephant in the Room

When you source candidates and look at their background for work, what happens when you discover racist posts on their public social media page? Do you skip the candidate? Do you not say anything and send regardless of your opinion?

If you are a full-time employee of the company, the first thing that might go through your mind is protecting yourself from that line of thinking. After that, you may consider the effect of hiring a new employee into the group. It could change the dynamic of the group. It could negatively affect the company culture. Company culture is supposed to come straight from the top. The thoughts, behaviors, employees and resultant work are all contributing factors.

If you are a full-time sourcer, do you send the candidate to the hiring manager and not say anything? Or do you send with a note attached that mentions what you discovered? What if the hiring manager really wants the candidate? Are they excusing the past behavior of this potential hire? Do you want to bring in top talent no matter what the cost is to your company?

Who should make the judgment call on the background of a candidate? The sourcer? The recruiter? The HR department? The hiring manager? Common sense says that the responsibility falls on all of our shoulders. How do you know what should be flagged and what is ok because “everybody does it”? If racist or discriminatory behavior is “generally accepted”, does that make it right? This line is clear but must be walked carefully. And those who make decisions in judgement also have to be held accountable, otherwise those decisions and judgements on character can go unchecked. There is an old saying; “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” that is worth bringing up. It translates to “who watches the watchmen?” and refers to the need to police those who police the people. The multiple meanings and layers that encompass this saying are universal in our country and world.

Yes, corporate culture comes from the top and HR leaders are responsible for guiding the policies around that culture. But sourcers are the ones who will see things first. And their responsibility could be: pass the discovered info along to the hiring manager…or just pass.

Of course if you are a contract sourcer or 3rd party staffing professional, then things get even murkier. You are trying to make hires at almost all costs. But when you see profiles that have questionable backgrounds, do you send anyway? Your staffing contract could very well rest on the number of candidates accepted for an interview or how many offers are extended.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Think about content raters for companies like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They are perpetually exposed to graphic and violent content all day. Their main job is to make sure that the terms of service do not get violated by the user community. But unless it is violent or graphic content, then it will usually stay up on the site. Let’s say for example that you are sourcing for a candidate and you run into their Twitter profile. If the profile has some overtly racist views that support known white supremacist groups, then the decision could seem very easy. But what about thinly-veiled posts? If you see the candidate respond to #BlackLivesMatter posts with #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter, then what can you infer? If you don’t see anything that seems blatantly racist but you see news posts about confederate monuments getting protected, then what can you think? If you see re-posts of a world leader with known racist agendas, then does that mean the individual is racist as well? If they post articles about Andrew Jackson and paint him as a hero, does that mean they are racist or do they just not know? There’s a chance that they have no idea, but there is also a chance that they know and do not care.  These days, almost anything can be explained away.

This only touches the surface of the infinite things that are out there. There are all kinds of innuendo and code words for racist and supremacist mind-sets. They can range from seemingly harmless cartoons to “old-time sayings” to almost anything.

How Long in the Doghouse?

So there is a flip side to this. Some people actually do change for the better (though some have been the same their entire life). Other people have made mistakes and have tried to make amends. A co-worker of mine illustrated a good point. Take the woman who called 911 on the black male bird watcher in Central Park. Her behavior was racist and abhorrent. So the company did the right thing: she was fired. But what about the future? How is she supposed to get hired again? Does that mean she never works a job again? Because no company wants to risk having her on the payroll? Her behavior does not make us sympathize with her. Or does she only get a job at a local supermarket where she can keep a low profile? How long does she go before she is accepted again? After the apology? 3 years after? Or never? What is a company’s criteria for considering a candidate with a past like hers? What does she have to do to be able to work again?

I’m sure it will be really tough for her. In the past of American history, the villains and accomplices rarely get a 2nd chance at the thing they really wanted. And the past doggedly won’t let go. It follows them everywhere they go. And if you blow a 2nd chance then forget it.

The Solution is Education

Whether you are in a position to make a decision on something like this or not, you have to be educated either way. If not for your job, then at least for yourself. There are many things that you yourself may say that have racist origins. A little reading and real history lessons can easily change this mindset. One thing that I remember from school was the complete white-washing of history that our books presented. For example the books failed to mention that the United State signed over 300 different pacts with Native Americans to not encroach on their land any further and you know what? The United States broke every single one. Research and a thirst for knowledge can change mindsets and allow you to look out for things that you may have missed.

Education and getting your history from multiple sources will teach you that “the good ol’ days” didn’t exist. They are just what we say to each other to reflect on a specific series of moments. But make no mistake, one person’s “good ol’ days” is another person’s “worst time of my life”.

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Luckily our community is made up of sourcers. And like all good researchers, we should not get our information from just one source material. Use multiple sources, multiple authors, and multiple viewpoints. The more you read, the more you can see the pattern of misleading viewpoints. And the better equipped you will be at handling them. Despite some opinions, there is no one source of material. There is no “one book to rule them all”. And there is no unbiased arbitrator of history. So do your work and your research. The answers are there if you want to find them.

While it may seem that there is anger in what’s happening now with BLM and the protests, keep in mind that this is not a moment that suddenly appeared. This is frustration with over 400 years of slavery, racism, segregation and violence against African Americans. While none of us were alive 400 years ago and most of us were not alive in the 1950’s, there is no reason that things should stay the same. The frustration at the progress and process in our country would drive almost anyone mad.

In Conclusion

There is probably no singular best practice or answer here. Introspection is absolutely necessary. It also means that the sourcer might need to think about the company that they work for.  Do they want to work for a company that tells them to turn a blind eye to candidates that post blatantly racist material?

It is every employee’s job to change the culture of a company if it doesn’t align with their values. Judgement can be a tricky thing. As a species we are still trying to get it right. Companies may need to decide if their sourcers are really equipped to play judge and jury on a potential candidate who tweeted #AllLivesMatter three years ago.

By no means am I saying that I have the answers to these questions. We seem to be living in a time when people feel pressured to have knee-jerk reactions to everything. That can be just as damaging as the initial problem that we are attempting to fix. Thinking first, and making sure we’re asking the right questions to begin with will allow us to get to the right answers.

It is the author’s opinion that sourcers should raise any content that is generally considered racist. And if they are unsure, a little self-education and asking of questions can help. These things should always be talked about within a company. Ultimately these decisions will shape the culture of the company. It is up to the employees to decide what kind of culture they want. 

If we are having trouble understanding where a minority group is coming from, then the best solution is to do real research, ask questions and listen.

It’s very important to understand other humans that we share this world with. As the song Walking in My Shoes by Depeche Mode says:

Now I’m not looking for absolution

Forgiveness for the things I do

But before you come to any conclusions

Try walking in my shoes

Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps

…we should always try to view how things might be for someone else that is not us.

Mark Tortorici is the Editor for SourceCon.  He is a training, recruiting, and sourcing manager who has been providing expert-level training for sourcers and recruiters since 1997. Mark is also the founder of Transform Talent Acquisition, which specializes in training for high technology computer concepts, advanced active & passive sourcing techniques, and full life-cycle recruitment process. He has created and delivered robust training programs for companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Ebay.

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