Fostering Diversity: When Good Ideas Lead to Bad Places pt. II

An early UUA Logo and Symbol of the UUA Movement in the USA (Wikipedia)

Over the weekend, something damaging happened in the Unitarian Universalist Association. Something that up until recently was pretty par-for-the-course in every entity around the world: a hiring decision was made. What makes this hiring decision unique are a few things. First, it was for a paid regional leadership position within the UUA. Second, the top-flight candidates where a white-male and a previously unknown woman-of-color (and because her identity isn’t important to this blog post, I won’t go into that, however if you want to read more about the events that unfolded, checkout uuworld.org). If you guessed the white-male was chosen over the woman-of-color, you’re not only correct but identified the source of the row. Which is precisely why it became a row that has seeped into even the sermons of congregations like my own Unity-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN, where the pre-planned sermon was scrapped late yesterday for a very well written but hasty foray into the fight.

Before I get into this, I want to caution readers here: I will be taking a very, very academic look at this issue. So, before anyone gets upset about a single line here or there, I would encourage the reader to continue all the way to the end. I ask you to give me your faith and trust, I believe it will be worth it.

Be it to say that overall there is nothing overly unique here in this hiring decision by itself. A decision was made on the merits of the candidate by the leadership at the helm. I know I will get some flack from people describing it as that, but I want to reiterate that line above about a very academic look at the issue. The surface, as it is, is a very typical hiring process: applicants apply, are interviewed, are judged, and are approved. The candidates that are not selected are given a generic response. We can make assumptions and observations from the outside, but they are just that. However, it is important to state that perception is reality: if the perception is present of implicit bias, then there is implicit bias, at least enough for the perception to exist.

What is essentially at the core of the issue here is if the policy of the UUA’s Affirmative Action policy was appropriately put into place. As Reverend Morales, now former-president, has resigned, it is safe to say it likely was not entirely put into place. At least as much as the beleaguered president decided that the perception of it not being put into action wasn’t worth the fight and opted instead to abdicate his position with a mea culpa. As with most hiring decisions, this is likely all we will truly know. That there was a diversity of candidates in the finalization process though does not indicate that all of those candidates had equal chances of being offered the position. Unless we get public disclosure of their interviews, documents, and the notes of the interviewees, we will never fully understand the reason for the selection. However, that doesn’t really fully matter at this point: the perception has been made and the opinions of many in the membership are in – and there is a problem.

UUA Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees has received a dozen emails and letters expressing unhappiness over the lack of diversity in UUA staffing; typically, the board gets two or three emails a month, said trustee Tim Atkins. (uuworld.org)

Thus is ultimately where we begin to slide into disarray with tools such as Affirmative Action. The employment process is largely secretive – the specific details of each candidate is not released to the public-at-large, even in a membership-driven organization such as the UUA. As a result, those making hiring decisions within an organization must contend with additional considerations.

Noting that people of color make up no more than 11 percent of any rank of UUA employees except service workers, where they are 84 percent of employees, the letter called for a change in hiring practices and a public conversation about monitoring the Association’s success in creating a multicultural staff. (uuworld.org)

When an organization is already behind in creating a diverse staff representing a broad spectrum of the population, a single hiring decision can be an organization’s undoing, even if there is no express bias being presented in the individual action. The numbers ultimately speak for themselves: not enough is being done to increase the diversity of staff, and insufficient communication is occurring back as to why that isn’t occurring, nor are aggressive plans being developed to correct that issue.

The Hiring Process, Perception, and Reality

If we look at all hiring decisions as answering one basic, fundamental question: is this person a right fit for this job, then Affirmative Action-implemented positions are also asking the following two basic questions: does this candidate increase the diversity of our staff and does the decision we make leave a perception of affirmative action policy adherence. This is especially important if the current organizational makeup does not reflect the desired diversity.

The first question itself has several components: does the person possess the skills for the job, the attitude for success, the personality to jive with the team and succeed in the role, among other soft and hard-skill questions and nuances. Needless to say, the job of hiring someone to do a job is quite complex. As someone who has participated in the hiring and management process, it’s not easy: someone can look great on paper but have a horrible demeanor, attitude, or presence; while another candidate looks shaky on paper but has all the other qualities that are desired. However, the world-at-large views employment decisions as largely a “is qualified? yes/no” question.

The issue that I am raising is that those making hiring decisions have to be able to adequately, expressly, and clearly articulate the reasons for selecting a particular candidate. Failing to be able to do so creates assumptions, and assumptions breed animosity, anger, distrust, and does damage to the wonderful tool that is Affirmative Action. As discussed in Part I, there exist tools that can help shape a progressive, diverse society. If they are implemented correctly, they can achieve their goals without doing harm. If they are implemented incorrectly, the results are disastrous for everyone involved. For the under-represented groups needing to be better represented in an organization or industry, the result of bad implementation is just as profound as it is for the traditionally dominant group. The result is that all groups begin to distrust either the process, the organization, or both. The goal of Affirmative Action is to propel qualified applicants into positions to increase diversity, not to engage in tokenism. When Affirmative Action is poorly implemented, the result is either insufficient diversity or the appearance of tokenism, neither help ensure this valuable tool remains viable for the job it is needed to take on.

Effective Implementation of Affirmative Action

So the question is now: how do we implement Affirmative Action effectively? All while protecting the privacy of the candidates?

The solution is rather simple, really. It involves taking a step away from the assumption that the entire hiring process needs to be secretive, and add additional layers of transparency. For an organization such as the UUA (or even a private business), this can be the role of an Ombudsman being an observer on the interview panels of leadership positions and providing a sanitized account of the interview process, and while not having a ‘vote’ on the hiring panel, has the ability to point out if it appears that policies are not being put into place appropriately. It would also involve a hiring panel that is as diverse as the desired candidate pool. If the hiring panel does not reflect the desired diversity, then there is insufficient diverse input to ensure that candidates are being selected based on a combination of their abilities and whether or not they increase diversity. At very least, it removes valuable credibility from those making the decision.

This would also require a bit of respect on the side of finalist candidates: taking the time to spell out exactly why they were not selected. Not why the other person was selected, but why they were not, and doing so with candor and honesty. Even in Affirmative Action applied environments, if a candidate not being chosen is clearly given a reason why instead of a generic “not being a right fit”, this reduces the assumptions and as a result the animosity of the process. This issue affects candidates across a wide discriminatory spectrum, including those affected by ableism, ageism (both bias against elders and youth), racism, sexism, homophobia, religious discrimination, political discrimination, weight, lifestyle (i.e. piercings and tattoos, etc.)… the list goes on. The lack of comprehensive feedback allows the denied candidate to assume their denial of the position was due to a perceived bias, which then becomes the reality; as well as allows those engaging in biased decision making the cover of not having to back up the decision making process to those involved or publicly. Add in a lack of diversity in the hiring panel and existing senior staff, and words such as “white supremacy” and “a crisis” begin to be bounced around.

This is even more important in an organization that is attempting to be at the forefront of diversity and progressive society. Overall, perceptions are reality. With the UUA hiring fiasco, we may come to find implicit bias, we may come to find that those selecting the candidates had good reasons for their choice. Yet, the public perception is that there is implicit bias, and whether or not this is the entire situation doesn’t really matter in the end. A situation that could have been avoided by awareness of the larger picture of the hiring process, awareness of the implications of the decision making process, and proper procedures put in place. Those procedures must be designed to ensure the validity of the process as well as proper perception of the outcome, whatever it may be.

The Way Forward

For the UUA and similar organizations, I would recommend an immediate course of action to ensure fairness of all future hiring as well as adherence to all policies:

  • The formation of an Ombudsman office with oversight into the hiring process for leadership positions, including volunteer positions, as a non-voting observer and advocate;
  • Clearly and publicly stating, in detail, the policies and procedures for hiring including how and when Affirmative Action will be applied;
  • A clear and detailed process for providing detailed feedback to all finalists regarding their interview and selection process;
  • A clear and detailed process for publicly detailing who was selected and why they were selected;
  • A diverse hiring panel representing a broad-spectrum of people;
  • An aggressive leadership development program to identify and cultivate a wide pool of diversity candidates;
  • Better publication of leadership positions, the detailed requirements of the position, and the policies and procedures for the hiring process;
  • An anonymized summary of the finalists and generic statements regarding their outcome in the selection process.

The ultimate goal is to not just ensure that policies and procedures are being appropriately carried out, but to also ensure perception and reality meet evenly. Only through transparency can the membership body be assured the desire for diversity is being taken seriously by those in charge of the hiring process. Failing to increase the transparency of the hiring process will only further the animosity and distrust of the process, both from traditionally under-represented candidates who are not selected but also from traditionally dominant-class candidates by ensuring it is clear when they are dismissed from the process in favor of diversity and complementing their work, or if they are simply a deficient candidate where they are deficient and need to improve. Leaving no candidate wondering why they were not selected ensures there are no assumptions, which are an enemy of creating a broad-spectrum diversity.

The UUA failed to implement Affirmative Action appropriately, and really communicate effectively, and as a result they are paying the price. Regardless of the motivations in selecting the applicant chosen for the position in question, it has created a feeling of distrust and sparked conflict across the wider membership body.

As Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs of Unity-Unitarian put it in her service today, the result of the failures is the creation of a “liberal firing squad” where everyone is “standing in a circle”. It could take years to undo the damage done as a result of these failures, including the damage done by those engaging in the use of hyperbolic language to describe the situation.

If we want to see real diversity in our organizations, we must be aggressive and transparent in the process. We must also pledge to ensure that diversity means more than just race and gender. As the partner of someone who is discriminated against blatantly due to disability, the need for broad-spectrum diversity hits squarely in my home. Unfortunately for her, the disability community is often completely overlooked in these discussions, which means even the discussion of diversity is failing to meet its stated goal. There is an opportunity here, should the UUA and other organizations seeking diversity choose to accept it. Transparency must be a key component of any implementation of diversity-increasing tools.

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