Racial Biases Persist in Public Sector Hiring. What can be done?

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A new study shows that Black candidates are at an enormous disadvantage in making it through the government hiring process. But states and cities are finding solutions.

The notion that states and localities should have workforces that are diverse and inclusive is nothing new and it’s been our impression that historical progress has been made on that front. 

Then we read a recently released report by NEOGOV, which provides technology for hiring new applicants in more than 2,000 agencies in state and local government from coast to coast. Our disillusioning discovery: Racial biases in the United States have continued to make it surprisingly difficult for Black candidates to move through the steps of the hiring process.

NEOGOV explored the question of racial biases by digging deep into its database, and then spending over a year cleaning up that information to make sure its conclusions were valid. It found that while diverse candidates are well-represented in government, Black candidates have to apply at significantly higher rates to maintain that representation.  

Says Shane Evangelist, chief executive officer of NEOGOV, “These results were absolutely eye-opening for us.” Here were a few of the most dramatic findings from the NEOGOV research, disaggregated specifically for this Route Fifty column:

  • For positions paying less than $40,000 a year, Black people are 44% less likely than white people to make it to the interview process after they have been identified as qualified for the position and were referred to agencies by the HR department. 
  • Things tend to get better as salary levels go up, but even for jobs paying between $80,000 a year and $120,000 a year, Black people are 26% less likely to move forward in the hiring process after they’ve been referred by HR.
  • There’s a strong geographic tie to these unfortunate differentials. They are worst in the eastern south-central states, which include Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, where Black candidates are 52% less likely than white candidates to go on to an interview after being referred by HR. 
  • Things are much less problematic in the Pacific states, which include Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii and Alaska, where Black people are only 5% less likely than white people from moving forward in the hiring process.
  • Racial biases affecting hiring were problematic in all Bureau of Labor Statistics job categories but were more acute in some. Surprisingly, they were particularly pronounced in educational instruction and libraries, and were somewhat less so in transportation and materials moving. 

Are these issues the result of outright racism? Sometimes that may be the case, but a greater problem is that of so-called “implicit” biases. As John Bartley, deputy director of the division of human resources in Colorado explains, “When you think about bias, people tend to think about conscious bias as in ‘I’m not going to hire a Black person, an Asian person or someone who was disabled.’ But in reality, the problem is mostly the insidious unconscious biases based on things we’ve read, or television or music or our families.”

Approaches for Quelling Unconscious Biases

Understanding this phenomenon can be key to training panel participants. One important element explains Kara Reddig, deputy city manager of Elk Grove, California, is to communicate the idea that “People are people. Just because you have biases doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.” This is a central message of a video designed to help make the people who sit on hiring panels drive these unconscious biases out of their thinking.  

Training, of course, is only one approach. Elk Grove also redacts the names of people from applications in the first couple of steps of hiring. Why? According to Nelson Lim, senior social scientist at the Rand Corp., “a number of randomized control studies about resume screenings done since the 1970s and 1980s show that when people see information on the resume’s cover like the name and other personal information, many employers respond less well to minorities.” 

Elk Grove doesn’t yet have data about the impact of this approach, but NEOGOV, which offers the option of eliminating personal information from applications has discovered it to be startlingly effective. “If you eliminate names, addresses and things that might create an unconscious bias, you see a 33% increase in the likelihood that a Black female will be hired for a job,” says Evangelist.

There are a number of other approaches to easing the path for people of color to public sector jobs. Leaders in Washington state, for example, have acknowledged that some people must fight an uphill battle as a result of the “historical barriers that may block people’s access to education,” says Franklin Plaistowe, assistant director of the state human resources division there. “So, we’re trying to provide broader opportunities and pathways.” 

Washington has a deeply decentralized HR system, which limits the degree to which it can mandate change in the agencies. But the state has been doggedly attempting to reduce bias in the hiring process. The biggest change was to mandate that agencies replace the word “required” with “desirable” in describing job qualifications. That change allows applicants who lack a college degree to successfully get a job as long as they have the necessary skills for it – without an insistence on unnecessary credentials. 

Leaders in Louisiana, meanwhile, have recognized that it’s important to hire people who believe in the value of working in a diverse place. The Louisiana Department of State Civil Service has had a long-standing set of eight competencies for all new hires. These included good judgement, initiative and professionalism. But the state has now added a ninth. New employees should value diversity to qualify for a job with the state.

Of course, making it easier for Black men and women to get jobs in the public sector doesn’t mean that they will be happy once they get there and stick around for the long haul. The common built-in biases that make it more difficult to get a job can make for a less-than-hospitable environment.

Tacoma, Washington has made an effort to deal with this issue with a number of strategies including holding a series of “listening sessions for Black employees, to create safe confidential spaces in which they can share the challenges they are facing,” says Nick Bayard, assistant chief equity officer in Tacoma. 

“When they’re done well,” he says, “they can create a sense of community among people with shared identities.”

Unfortunately, nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and Bayard acknowledges that “Some folks may be afraid to even attend, because there’s always a fear of retaliation. That’s not just true in Tacoma; it’s a feature of listening sessions everywhere. Some people fundamentally disagree with the notion that there is structural racism. And that disagreement can morph into retaliation against anyone working to improve racial equity.”

Bayard’s candid concession has importance that goes beyond the difficulties of running listening sessions. It points to the remarkable challenges that states and localities confront in trying to alter the data that NEOGOV has gathered. There’s a long hard road to improving equity in hiring. But at least a growing number of entities are beginning to make the trip.  

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