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OPINION

I was a CEO. Here’s how corporate America fails to hire Black people

The only really racial inequality game-changer that works in corporate life is pressure from the top.

BRYAN R. SMITH

“I can’t find a Black candidate to fill the job.”

In my 40 years in corporate executive suites, I must have heard a version of this phrase hundreds of times when executives were asked to hire a manager at any level.

That opening salvo was usually followed with a smattering of other hand-wringing comments like, “I interviewed a few Black candidates, but they really weren’t qualified.” Or, “There just are not enough Black executives trained in that field.” Or, “There was one good Black candidate, but there is no way we could retain them, given how rare they are.” The recruiting executive almost always finished with something like, “We have to fill this job soon, since corporate needs are pressing. We tried to fill it with a Black person, but can’t afford a failure. Can we go ahead and hire someone else and get on with the work?”

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I am ashamed to say that for many years, I often gave in and essentially said, “OK, go ahead, you gave it a good try, fill the job with a white person.” I witnessed my colleagues do the same many times. We white corporate types think that, as long as we make an earnest effort to hire a Black person, our conscience is clear and our societal responsibilities fulfilled. We actually feel good about being so progressive, despite the fact a Black is not hired.

I came to realize in later years that this widely used exclusion practice is not “earnest effort.” It is not a qualification issue. It is not because pressing corporate urgency forces a white hiring. It is just like onerous voter registration rules for Black people, discriminatory housing, police brutality, and thousands of other prejudicial actions. Rejecting Black managers is corporate racism. It is sophisticated prejudice, virtually under the public radar and seldom examined. When corporate racism is examined, the numbers are revealing and ugly.

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“Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Approach,” a study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, was released in December. Among its startling results:

▪ While Blacks make up 10 percent of all college graduates, there are only four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500. That’s fewer than the number of Black CEOs 10 years ago.

▪ Only 3.2 percent of executives and senior managers are Black.

▪ 58 percent of the Black professionals surveyed said they have experienced racial prejudice at work.

Corporate executives live and die by numbers. One would think numbers like these would shake our belief that we are doing everything we can to provide equal opportunity for Black professionals. Granted there are many internal diversity hiring and training and recruiting programs. They are not working. And if they are working, it is at a glacial pace that shows little improvement for a generation demonstrating in our streets and demanding progress now.

As everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to university presidents to movie stars scrambles to issue statements and initiatives to address racial inequality, corporate America not only has to reexamine its past, it needs to realize fast that the solution is not gradual improvement. Nor is it hiding behind our heavily funded worthwhile community social and education programs. The ones we proudly trot out whenever questions are raised about our commitment to racial equality. The fact is, we are much better at giving to programs than taking personal responsibility and testing our own prejudices. When we don’t know what to do, we usually send cash.

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That approach is well-worn and no longer is ”just enough.” It is not enough to throw money at the issue. It is not enough to rewrite internal policies. It is not enough to make heartfelt speeches.

As legislators pass laws, police departments make new policies, and schools examine their practices, corporate America needs not only to hold up its end, it also has to lead the way in the private sector. And the best way to do that is through CEOs proactively intervening in hiring decisions and process.

What some of us have learned is that the only really racial inequality game-changer that works in corporate life has to come from the top. Senior management has to intervene in hiring decisions and no longer accept these white bread “can’t find one“ excuses. In my latter CEO years, I realized that unless I forced the issue and told execs that “not only are you going to hire a Black executive, I am also holding you personally responsible for that person‘s success. If that Black executive fails, I am firing you, not them.” The results were amazing. Suddenly, more Black executives appeared and, given the chance, many became very successful.

I should have done it years before and greatly regret that failure. If every company in America adopted this approach, we could solve this inequity and create thousands of new Black leaders in every company, industry, and community. CEOs need to take personal responsibility to make these changes. Hold people accountable for hiring Black management and for their success. And change white management when they hesitate, make excuses, or drag their feet.

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CEOs need to take a knee and then stand up for — and do — something that will really make a systemic, long-term difference.

David D’Alessandro is former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services.