Reacting to diversity hiring when I am Hispanic but it is not obvious
January 31, 2019 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I recently applied to an internship and was informed via phone that while I was highly qualified and interviewed well, the position was being offered to a person of color in support of institutional diversity efforts. I commend that decision. Those efforts are important and align with my values. I do not want them to reconsider and am accepting a different offer anyway. However, I feel compelled to let the hiring manager who called me know that I am Hispanic, despite my complexion not making this obvious; I look white.

It was kind of a shocking conversation and they handled it clumsily but I think the hiring manager thought they were being encouraging in sharing why I was disqualified and confirming that I should re-apply for future opportunities. They mentioned during my interview that they were only likely to call to make an offer to the selected candidate and that rejected candidates would get an email from HR, so it seems an exception was made to call me about this. I have only ever spoken to the hiring manager and have had no contact with HR at all.

I am not trying to get them to reconsider or make them feel bad or embarrassed. I also know that because I am not visibly ethnic, I have privileges that people who are more obvious minorities cannot access. However, I feel compelled to let them know about my heritage to point out that determining someone's background based on skin color and optics alone can undermine even the most sincere diversity efforts. Not all minorities 'look the part' and we have unique experiences and perspectives to contribute, too.

I've drafted a gentle, professional email with this feedback but I am scared to send it. This is someone with whom I've been actively cultivating a professional relationship and a small, private institution where I've dreamed of working for years and plan to re-apply. I worry I am overreacting, being too sensitive, or overstepping an obvious boundary. I also don't want anyone to think I am trying to create an HR issue. But then again, it feels wrong to ignore it because I think my point about diversity being more than skin color is important.

Should I send the email or should I drop it?
posted by calcetinporfavor to Work & Money (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who helps with hiring, who is committed to improving the diversity of our team, I would not believe in the good intentions - on any level - of someone who tells you that you didn't get the job because a candidate of a different race got preference. That is shockingly unprofessional and is a disservice to any diversity efforts their institution may genuinely believe in, so I don't think going back and saying "actually, I'm Hispanic" will get you anywhere positive. At best, it might make them feel embarrassed (because they clearly made assumptions that are not correct or in service to their alleged goals) which in this case I actually would kind of want them to feel, because this reads to me (based on the info you provided) as a complete professional mishandling of hiring that deserves some dressing down. But I can understand why you might not want to nuke this bridge.
posted by olinerd at 8:02 AM on January 31, 2019 [63 favorites]

Um, that phone call sounds like an HR nightmare.

Just curious, were you asked to reflect on supporting institutional diversity in any of the application materials? In other words, beyond checking a box, was there a way for you to identify your background and, more importantly, how you would support diversity?
posted by TwoStride at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

Don’t send the email. You want to give a friendly heads up. However, any email you send will be taken by their HR and legal as an opening salvo in an employment discrimination case. Emailing will not achieve your goal.

A friendly heads up is best given in person over coffee. Other alternatives are a phone call or a message passed verbally by a discreet acquaintance. You cannot write this message down if you want it disseminated informally.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:03 AM on January 31, 2019 [14 favorites]

That seems like a fucked up call from someone who on some level disapproves of the organization's diversity policies and is trying to whip up bad feelings in relation to them. (You're being very professional and non-judgmental about it, but the fact that you characterize the call as 'shocking' and 'clumsy' seems to cut in favor of that interpretation -- the person making the call was doing something weird. They may not be a terrible person, and god knows what their precise motivations were, but that was a dysfunctional call to make.)

At which point the fact that you're Hispanic rather than non-Hispanic white, while it's something a functional HR department might want to consider, isn't going to be a useful thing to communicate because the person you're communicating with is not functioning reasonably. I would move on and flag the individual who called you as someone to keep an eye on for messed up behavior if you ever run into them again. So, drop it.

Unless... you say internship. If you're currently a student, and are applying for this internship in connection with your college/grad school, I might go to the careers office (or whoever seems like the correct internal authority), and tell them this story in precisely the same calm, non-judgmental tone you told it here, saying that you decided not to bring up your ethnicity in response but asking if they had any advice. This seems like the kind of thing that's worth telling people about.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:15 AM on January 31, 2019 [32 favorites]

It is truly bizarre that that was their stated reason for not giving you the job. Assume that this company is a toxic dumpster fire and that you have been given a great blessing by not being invited to work there. Don't give it any more thought—it's not you, it's them.

You won't have to deal with this from normal companies because normal companies that you would actually want to work at do not behave like this.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:15 AM on January 31, 2019 [7 favorites]

And yeah, I agree that the person on the phone or maybe their immediate super is probably a racist shitheel who was lashing out in a super unprofessional way about the fact that their precious haven of whiteness is trying to welcome people of color into its ranks.

Seriously, you dodged a bullet, move on with your life and maybe say a little prayer for the poor sod who actually got the job.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:18 AM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I definitely agree that, even as someone who can pass as white, you could bring a unique and important perspective to any majority-white setting. However, I will share something from my own experience that is sort of adjacent to hiring (recruiting trainees for an advanced fellowship): we consider the number of visible minorities to be very important. We think about this not just in terms of our eventual offers, but also even in the composition of who attends an interview day (there are only a handful of interview days, with 20-35 candidates per day). We want these applicants to look around the table and SEE other minorities. This is why, for example, we don't count GLBTQ candidates in the same way (though we value their perspectives and of course endeavor to have a range of sexual identities as well). But it can be very powerful to have people who clearly "read" as a minority, and that is distinctly different from someone who does not.
posted by Bebo at 8:20 AM on January 31, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think your experience and your point are important and I for one, am glad to have read your post.

That said, I don't think you are required to help this organization address this at this exact point in time, especially if it might impact on your future career goals. You can wait until you are hired there and then address it, you can share your story in other venues and with other people (if you are at a campus that's a great place)...all kinds of things. But it seems really unfair if you take a double hit in this case - you don't get the job, and you potentially end up red-flagged by HR or a hiring authority.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:32 AM on January 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

Should I send the email or should I drop it?

This sounds like a great question for an attorney with a practice focus that includes employment law.

You may not be the only person who has been on the receiving end of what may be unlawful discrimination - the extremely unprofessional behavior you describe may be the kind of 'blood in the water' that will be of interest to an attorney with a focus on representing plaintiffs, and you likely can find a free or low-cost consultation with a local attorney who can explain your options based on the specific circumstances and applicable laws.
posted by Little Dawn at 9:06 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Although I only worked in HR a short time, my gut take on this is that if they were as truly committed to diversity as they claim to be, they would have invited applicants to self-identity their ethnicity right from the beginning of the process
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:08 AM on January 31, 2019 [14 favorites]

So, I work in Employment Equity (what some would call Canada's version of Affirmative Action, although that's not quite right) and diversity for a government department. EE and diversity has been part of my career for close to 15 years.

We (I) always, always, always encourage hiring managers to consider diversity when hiring. They rarely do, but let's say for a change someone did and went with a visible minority candidate.

1) Key, this person must meet all the qualifications of the job regardless of their background.
2) They must have self-identified as part of the application process (i.e. no basing anything on what they hiring manager *thinks* a person is, but on how they self-identify)
3) You certainly NEVER call back other candidates and say "Well we decided to go with a Visible Minority (woman/indigenous/Person with a Disability...) instead." That's just counter-productive. It will piss people off and reinforce the inaccurate perception that these groups get preference in hiring.

This guy who you spoke to was not doing his organization any favours. I wouldn't bother with the email.
posted by aclevername at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2019 [18 favorites]

I think that possibility has been noted -- e.g., from my comment "They may not be a terrible person, and god knows what their precise motivations were, but that was a dysfunctional call to make". You're right, we don't know the motivation of the hiring person for sure. But we do know that that what they did was objectively an abnormal thing to do, because of the likely risk of it creating bad feelings. So, they're at least being in your terms "clumsy" around diversity issues.

And at that point, further interaction with the hiring person is risky, and there's no real benefit to it. Avoid. If the person is a helpful, sincere kind person who just bobbled this interaction really badly? The next person they try to be kind to, in an interaction that isn't messed up, can be grateful to them for the successful kindness. It's not the asker's job to be supportive to someone who has been inappropriate to them, even if that inappropriateness was an attempt to be kind.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2019

There is no response to this which does not open you up to hassle down the line.

Whether this person is going rogue or, heaven help us, doing this with the blessing of the company, their contacting you with this information (whether it is accurate or not) was a horrifically stupid thing to do which invites discrimination suits against the company and, if they disclosed this to you without the blessing of the company, retaliation from the company against them. Regardless of what ends up happening, sooner or later this sort of behavior is going to land all parties involved in a maelstrom of litigation and unless you are strongly motivated to take part in it, the best way to not get involved is to have your name on as few pieces of eventual evidence as possible.

posted by jackbishop at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for your valuable insights. I welcome anyone else's thoughts, but I am not planning to send the email or take further action at this time. I'm so glad I paid attention to my hesitation and asked this here. For now, I feel assured that there isn't a good way for me to address this problematic interaction.

For the sake of clarity and addressing some questions/concerns, I am pretty certain (but have no way to verify) that the online portion of the application requested optional demographic racial information, where I checked Caucasian, but did not include ethnicity, where I would normally indicate that I am Hispanic. I was not otherwise asked to speak about diversity in my application or interview. Also, my application didn't involve my school or program, but I will consider sharing this experience with my peers and mentors if appropriate opportunities arise.

I comprehend the value of visible minority representation and don't have any problem with anyone prioritizing that.

I am very appreciative to those of you who sussed out how fucked up the phone call felt and I don't disagree that HR and legal problems abound. Without defending the indefensible, I will share that the hiring manager is a much older person who was clearly struggling with diversity concepts but seemed very proud to work somewhere that would "give this chance to someone who may not otherwise have the opportunity." It was wrong and ignorant, but I didn't sense any hostility on their part to diversity hiring. I don't find this to be reason enough to write off the whole institution because I am confident their HR and leadership would be horrified that this phone call happened. But, I don't see the benefit of trying to teach that lesson from where I stand.

Thanks again, all.
posted by calcetinporfavor at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2019 [23 favorites]

Just FYI, if you want to make this information available to hiring teams, you should be including it in your cover letter and interview talking points. If you're applying to organizations that value having a diversity of backgrounds on a team, you will want to make your contribution to that clear.
posted by salvia at 10:20 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am confident their HR and leadership would be horrified that this phone call happened

Yeah, because it could directly result in someone showing up in their lobby, armed.

You don't have to name names, or give your name, or your ethnicity, but I think you should consider sending some kind of communication to let them know your experience with that conversation, and also let them know that their "diversity program" (assuming it exists, which I don't) isn't using the correct methodology for even assessing "diversity". They need to train their employees - likely more than just the one - on how to accurately navigate hiring communication and what you absolutely cannot do (say what they said), and they need to get right with their hiring practices. Before they get sued or someone gets hurt.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:42 AM on January 31, 2019

a much older person who was clearly struggling with diversity concepts but seemed very proud to work somewhere that would "give this chance to someone who may not otherwise have the opportunity."

OP, you're a generous soul, and I'm impressed you chose to volunteer your ethnicity during this weird-ass conversation. (As a fellow undercover Hispanic, I don't feel I navigate these situations with anything close to your grace.) I just wanted to point out that this unprofessional hiring manager is still being racist: they believe the person being hired is not qualified, and they were eager to share that opinion (couched in some Lady Bountiful-type condescension) with you. I hope the hiree doesn't have to interact with them very much.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2019 [11 favorites]

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