Dallas morning news logo

March 17, 2002


By Jim Leverette and Randy Neal

Take a snapshot of upper management at most Fortune 500 firms, and the glare off all of those white faces could be blinding. Yes, even in the new millennium, the great majority of business leaders are male European-Americans, despite the celebrated ascendancy of a handful of African-American men to chief executive officer positions.

But the times, they are a’ changin’. That at least is the impression we get from our vantage point as executive search consultants working with some of the nation’s largest companies. In the past 12 months, the majority of assignments our firm has been retained to conduct have come with the request to see a broader and more diverse pool of candidates. Previously, such “diversity hires” seemed to be the exception, not the rule.

What is a “diversity hire,” and why do they seem more prevalent now than in the past? In the language of executive search, a “diversity hire“ means a company not only is looking to acquire high-caliber talent, it also wants to make a genuine and concerted effort to identify, interview and, if appropriate, hire a minority member or a woman. Specifically, the company is seeking qualified Hispanic, African-American, Asian or female executives.

Of course, all executive search firms are prohibited from referring candidates strictly on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, marital status or handicap (though it is acceptable to assist clients in affirmative action programs).

The reality is, however, that some companies, like some people, follow the path of least resistance and pick the low hanging fruit. In the “human capital” market, that generally means white male executives. White male candidates simply are better known and more easily identified by the white male business leaders who run most of America’s corporations than are diversity candidates. While discrimination still is alive and well, inertia may have as much to do with the ethnic makeup of corporate America as does prejudice.

So why are companies more willing to make an effort to diversify now than they were just one or two years ago? That isn’t an easy question to answer, but we can hazard a few guesses.

The first reason is economic. The influx of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, combined with the African-American population, has created a market too large to be marginalized. That has been the case for some time, however. The government monitors hiring practices and applies pressure on companies to diversify through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but that, too, has been a part of the business environment for years.

The real shift is attitudinal. It derives from two sources. The first can be best identified by invoking several names. Colin Powell, secretary of state; Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser; Kenneth Chenault, chief executive officer of American Express; Herman Edwards, head coach of the New York Jets; the late Roberto Goizueta, former chief executive officer of Coca-Cola; and many others. There have been examples of successful minorities in the past, of course, but the new breed of minority leaders is perceived as different. Their prominence is based on bottom-line management skills that aren’t attached to politics, religion or athletic or performing talent. The awareness that minorities and women can be as corporate in their demeanor as any of their white male counterparts, and can be valuable members of the management team, has seeped in at last. More than ever, corporate America is recognizing that intellectual capital comes in a variety of shades and models.

Last but not least is the transformational power of Sept. 11. The events of that day helped form a much remarked upon realization that Americans are more united in their values than they are divided by their ethnic diversity. That realization has spurred a more rigorous pursuit of inclusion in corporate America that, it is hoped, will outlast the present crisis.

What does that mean to European-American males? Will the new focus on diversity hiring leave them out in the cold? An understanding of the search process argues otherwise. A concerted effort to identify all qualified candidates merely ensures that the best people for the job are considered, no matter who ultimately is selected.

A simple program but one that has taken corporate America a long time to adopt.

Jim Leverette and Randy Neal are senior partners with Randall James Monroe, Inc., a Dallas-based executive search firm.