NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

Do policies that aim to increase diversity in hiring really work?

Correction: We’ve corrected the interview to reflect that on the psychological safety of workers of color and recruitment pipelines, Winitha Bonney said it was a “leaky recruitment pipeline.” The PBS NewsHour regrets the error.

Earlier this month, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL over allegedly racist hiring processes.

The lawsuit stems from a series of text messages between Flores and Patriots coach Bill Belichick three days before the former was scheduled to interview with the New York Giants. In those messages, Belichick congratulated Flores on getting the role. The problem, however, was that according to Flores, Belichick had mistaken Flores, who is Black, for Brian Daboll, who is white.

The text messages convinced Flores that he was only being asked to interview for a coaching role to satisfy the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires a team to interview at least two minority candidates from outside the organization for management positions.

“It was humiliating to be quite honest,” Flores said in a press conference this month. “There was disbelief, there was anger, there was a wave of emotion for a lot of reasons.”

WATCH: Former Miami Dolphins coach alleges racism in ‘scorched-earth lawsuit’ against the NFL

Named after former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the rule was first implemented in 2003.

The rule, and other measures like it, have also been adopted by industries outside of the NFL and sports at large, including in corporate America where organizations have sought to diversify staff– executive positions in particular. However, as is evidenced in the case of the NFL, efforts to diversify higher level management positions, and how they are carried out, can create their own sets of problems.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85.7 percent of “Chief Executive” roles are held by white people, only 5.9 percent are held by Black people and 6.8 percent by Hispanics or Latinos.

According to 2020 census figures, Black Americans and Hispanics make up 12.4 percent and 18.7 percent , respectively, of the nation as a whole.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and a national racial reckoning that was sparked largely by the killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, high profile companies have been under more pressure to transform and address diversity and racial equity.

How they do so, including using techniques such as the Rooney Rule, will determine whether those companies will be able to create boardrooms that capture a more accurate representation of the United States.

The PBS NewsHour spoke to four experts in the fields of sports, employment and recruitment about the Rooney Rule, corporate America and about diversifying hiring.

Is the Flores case something we can use to understand how policies designed to promote hiring for diversity work or don’t work in the broader economy?

LaQuita Frederick, Faculty Director of Sports Industry Management, Georgetown University:
“There’s only 32 positions in the NFL for a head coaching position, so even if you were to not consider any of the challenges around race, ethnicity, gender, identity intersections, that’s a very slim number for any profession, and that’s one of the things that’s very unique about sports. It’s high profile.

I do think it translates to other parts of the world, other industries and other careers and professions. I don’t think it is as apparent because, obviously, it’s not as high profile…it absolutely can happen [in other industries] but it gets buried because those industries are more traditional and they have infinite opportunities [for hiring].

Alvin Tillery, Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, Northwestern University: “We can’t really make a lot of extrapolations from it, it’s already a very rarified space. The NFL, from my perspective, operates as something of a cartel, right? With the kind of power of these owners to collude and to punish people they don’t like.

When Dan Rooney instituted the rule, as head of the NFL’s Diversity Committee. It was very revolutionary. He was trying to make change. He made change with his own team and there was a belief that just getting minority talent in front of some of these owners who were averse to change would elevate them.

The American workplace, the adoption of some kind of Rooney rules [in recruiting talent] has made a difference, that has made pipelines more diverse. When you get to executive talent, it hasn’t moved the needle in the same way that you would expect, but people are trying new things like the Mansfield rule [a rule that requires employers to consider at least 30 percent minorities for leadership roles].

In particular and for things like board seats where Rooney Rules are enforced, the same minority candidates are being brought in over and over again to fulfill the rule.”

How much have organizations turned their focus toward diversity and diversifying workforces in the last year? Are these efforts effective?

Winitha Bonney, Thought Leader in Building Inclusive Cultures and Leadership for People of Color: “When I come into an organization, 80 percent of the conversation generally tends to be around recruitment…It’s actually the perception of the organization of the leadership team in terms of what they see inclusion is and what we need to be doing, and it’s all around recruitment and it’s all about the recruitment pool.

[But] it’s actually irresponsible to bring people through the recruitment pool, particularly people that have experienced discrimination and in this climate, – African Americans and Black people – to actually bring them into the organization if you do not have a culture of inclusion.

If you do not have psychological safety, you’re just bringing them into a space where they are going to be harmed and hurt, and they’re going to leave. And that’s what I call a really key recruitment pipeline. So yes, you might bring people in, but people are going to leave anyway.”

Do you find that candidates are worried that they’re being just brought in to diversify a pool?

Winitha Bonney: “I’m working with a lot of women and people of color. I definitely hear that a lot. So a lot of individuals, when they get to the interview stage when they are at the interview, will get that sense. That feeling of ‘I’m just here to diversify the recruitment pool.’

That’s what happens when you heavily focus on recruitment, you’re focusing on the symptom. You’re not focusing on the flaws. Individuals will leave the organization because it’s not inclusive and there are no opportunities for career progression.

What are some of the alternatives to policies like the Rooney Rule to having a more diverse workforce, especially in competitive jobs?

LaQuita Frederick: “We all understand money, so I think if we could show them how it impacts their bottom line…Stop focusing on checking the boxes, I think you actually would organically get some more diversity. I think that’s what’s happening with the Rooney Rule. They’re too busy checking the box to be genuine about it.

Alvin Tillery: “I don’t think it is the rule that harmed Flores, it was the racism that harmed Flores. I think frustrations with the way the Rooney Rule operates are really just what we call an intervening variable between the real problem which is the racism and the obvious, patent, inequalities that the NFL is manufacturing by having in place extreme racial preferences for white male coaches.”

Dethra Giles, human resources recruiter and CEO of Execuprep: “I think it is not so much about ‘fixing’ the Rooney Rule, as much as what needs to happen in conjunction with the Rooney Rule … Ultimately, nothing will take the place of equitable preparations. If only a homogenous group is mentored, trained, guided, and prepared for the next level in an organization, no amount of rules, laws, or supporting action will change the outcome. Our conversation and concern have to start before recruiting, or the Rooney Rule comes into play.

A lot of what has changed has really been performative, which is what often times what the Rooney Rule ends up being. Let’s make it look like we’re doing the right thing, and as long as it looks like we’re doing the right thing, no one focuses on the outcome or results. So if we’re truly giving minorities, women, persons of color and opportunity, and they’re really being considered, shouldn’t we have a lot more outcomes of people getting these positions? And we’re not. So what has really changed is the performance aspect of it all. People have done a really good job of looking like they’re doing something.”

Winitha Bonney: “The Rooney Rule might be part of the strategy to address the problem, but it is not the whole solution. It is just one tactic or one component in the overall strategy. And this is why it is proving ineffective and instead backfiring. The Rooney Rule is no different from mandating implicit bias training. However at the same time, when combined with other tactics in implementing an inclusion strategy, it can help move the needle forward on inclusion.

The alternative approach, the most effective approach, is to put the people most affected at the center. Center their lived experiences and give them the decision making power. Get them to identify the problem and to design a strategy to tackle the pain points as well as the criteria and environment needed to implement the strategy. Lastly, all leaders must be actively involved in the delivery of that strategy. Anything less is inequitable.

Just focusing on recruitment is unequitable in itself. It’s very much treating the symptoms as opposed to getting to the underlying root cause, but organizations aren’t willing to invest that amount of time and energy to understand and to identify what those problems are. And that’s a bigger problem.”