I'm working with a small religious non-profit on a committee to fill a position for what is essentially the second in command*. The role involves working with people in our community, both publicly and privately. At our last meeting, the leader* of our non-profit, who is kind of the "first among equals" for this committee, said words to this effect:

One thing we've heard from the people we work with is that there isn't enough diversity among our staff, especially compared to where we were a few years ago. We need to hire more diversity. We just hired one straight white man [points to himself] and I don't want us to hire another.

I really felt from his tone, and previous discussions this leader has had, that this was his way of telling us "do not hire a straight white man". I am aware that it is illegal to discriminate race, sex, and several other criteria, so this raised some red flags in my mind. Nonetheless, several other committee members also said they didn't want to hire straight white men. Regrettably, I didn't have the heart to speak up at the time to voice my concerns.

Shortly after his speech, we reviewed some résumés and, although we didn't immediately disqualify any straight white men (really, just white men since sexuality wasn't something we could know from that), they were only given a token discussion. The leader and one other person even explicitly said that one such candidate was their last choice due to him being a white man.

I have no problem hiring someone who is not a white man (in fact, one of the best people we have had in this role previously was a Latina woman), and I do know that some of the people we work with have said they wanted more diversity. But I'm concerned about the legal implications of this explicit instruction, and more general ethical concerns.

What can I do to change this attitude, yet still address diversity concerns? I'm worried that if I simply point out "discriminating in this way is illegal", the result will be "sure, we'll consider all equally", but there will still be implicit biases.

If it matters, this is a religious-affiliated organization, but there are no religious restrictions preventing anyone of a certain gender or ethnicity from filling the role (unlike, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church having a religious restriction for a woman to serve as a priest). Aside from the people we work with being more comfortable talking to someone who matches their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, there isn't anything that would prevent a straight white man from fulfilling the duties of the position. I am unsure if "clients would be more comfortable" is enough of a reason to allow this.

* I'm being vague about the terms for leadership because it would make clear which religious group we are part of, and I don't want that to be the focus. I'd appreciate more general advice applicable for any religious group in the United States.

Update: When I brought this up again with the committee and the leader, it was pointed out that the organization was unlikely to get into legal trouble because federal discrimination laws generally don't apply to religious institutions (as upheld in the Supreme Court by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). I tried to refocus my argument to more of an ethical one, pointing out that as a religious institution people expected us to be the best we could and avoid any appearance of impropriety, but didn't make a lot of headway. The general attitude was that the ends justified the means in promoting diversity, and if that meant not considering white men, so be it.

Ultimately, the issue wound up being moot. Our best candidates in terms of prior experience and such were not white men, but rather ones who were women or non-whites. However, my concern about bias that would be potentially illegal in other fields wound up being one of several issues that led me to step down from my position within the religious non-profit.

  • 1
    @JoeStrazzere I originally wanted to ask "is it ethical", but I was concerned that might be opinion based, and I was unaware that legal questions were off-topic here. Is there some way I can rephrase this question to ask "is it okay" that would be on-topic? Apr 11 '17 at 17:54
  • @JoeStrazzere Thank you for the suggestion to change to "how can I convince them to change it", which is really more what I'm after. I do want to find a solution to this problem. I've made a few changes; please let me know if there are further improvements I can make. Apr 11 '17 at 18:00
  • 3
    @JoeStrazzere I figured out leader telling us "I don't want us to hire straight white men" was being explicitly instructed not to hire straight white men, but I guess I can come up with something else. Apr 11 '17 at 18:06
  • You note that "there will still be implicit biases" - perhaps your leader said this in an attempt explicitly counter an implicit bias against non-white-males?
    – user812786
    Apr 11 '17 at 19:19
  • I think this is a good question and on topic. It is also a hard question so please think before trying to answer. Apr 12 '17 at 15:14

What can I do to change this attitude, yet still address diversity concerns?

If you are truly a committee member you shouldn't have remained silent when this red flag was raised in your head. You seem to have neglected your role. That was unfortunate.

Ask the committee if you can get together again. Present what you believe to be the relevant law. Ask for clarification about what the leader was suggesting (my belief is that you were not "explicitly instructed" here). And discuss your belief about how best to meet the organization's diversity goals.

Then listen. You may learn something (perhaps about why diversity is so important in this particular instance) with a more open discussion. I suspect the leader's comment of "there isn't enough diversity among our staff, especially compared to where we were a few years ago" is significant, and worthy of further discussion.

Maybe they will change, maybe they won't. Maybe you'll no longer feel comfortable being part of this organization. But everyone will be better off with an open, honest discussion.

  • 3
    If he was the lone dissenter, he may be called racist and forced out of the organization by the other members.
    – Jack
    May 7 '18 at 5:48

I'd suggest having an honest conversation about your concerns: "We're looking for the best fit, right? Not just a non-white to tick off a diversity box?" Race is a very tricky subject, but I think your intentions are headed in the right direction.

Your concern is totally valid. Not hiring someone because they're a straight white man is discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, and sex (at least two of those are illegal, depending on your state). However, in some cases, innate features may make them less likely to be the "best person" for a given position (ie. Rachel Dolezal).

It is worth pointing out that diversity is an incredibly important aspect of community outreach. I have co-directed a community outreach program for ~4 years. White America can seem really monolithic to minorities, almost to the point of being something to be distrusted or even feared.

It's a basic fact of humanity that we prefer people who look like us, sound like us, and pray like us.

It's also a basic fact that racism exists, and that it can occur to anyone at any time. That is, not hiring someone because they are white and not hiring someone because they are Asian is equally racist behavior (literally, discrimination on the basis of race). Your concern about the way your organization is handling this is heartening! You want the right person for the job.

It's important to acknowledge that the "best person" and the "right person" aren't always the same person in an applicant pool. Sometimes, the "best person" has amazing technical chops, but clashes terribly with management or has a history of insubordinate behavior. The "right person" might have less honed technical skills, but fits the culture and vibe of the organization more cleanly.

In the case of an outreach program, it's really important to have individuals available who can relate to the people, culture, and custom they're reaching out to. A Jewish community has different needs and customs than a Haitian one, different than an Islamic one, and different than a Hispanic one.

  • 1
    I edited this to hopefully convey what you were wanting to say in a way which flows a little better.
    – enderland
    Apr 11 '17 at 21:27
  • @enderland Thanks! I appreciate your input and edits. I'll give it another pass to tidy it up a bit more
    – sleddog
    Apr 11 '17 at 21:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .