Recruitment and Retention of Minority Officers

Published 17 Feb 2017

Table of content


Overt racism, past and present, contributes to social and residential segregation, thereby isolating minorities at every income level from white society. Because of such isolation, minorities are vulnerable, by exclusion, to selection by personal connections. The negative impact of qualification standards in employment is sustained by racially biased funding of education and training resources and by the cumulative racist impact of such practices as tracking in schools. Minorities suffer the adverse effects of seniority based promotion and layoff because of past racist hiring of whites ahead of minorities. Institutional racism also reinforces future racism by contributing to the disproportionate presence of minorities at the bottom of employment–a presence that helps perpetuate the racist attitude that minorities are inherently inferior. White notions of minority people have been formed in a social world where minorities visibly predominate at these bottom levels. Thus they have labored–and continue to labor–as maids and porters, at “hot, heavy, and dirty” jobs in the foundries and paint pits of the auto plants, the boiler rooms of utilities, the dusty basements of tobacco factories, and in the murderous heat of the steel mills’ coke ovens.

The neutral procedures that have had the greatest racist impact within employment are selection by (1) personal connections, (1) qualification standards, and (3) seniority status.

Reliance by employers on friends, relatives, and neighbors-their own or their workers’–has powerful racist impact–first, because of its paramount importance in the world of work, second, because of its links to overt racism. Numerous studies of workers–blue and white collar, professional and technical–indicate that communicating job information to family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances by word of mouth is probably the most widely used recruitment method.

Vocational counselors emphasize the importance of making contacts through personal connections. Job seekers know the value of having friends in the department of their choice. Referral unions that influence or control hiring for many well-paid jobs in such industries as construction, printing, publishing, and transportation commonly recruit through personal contacts. Because, for the most part, minorities and whites live as two separate societies, it is not surprising that minorities suffer because of selection by personal contacts. Lacking ties to whites as family, friends, fellow students, neighbors, or club members, minorities tend to be isolated from the networks in which connections to desirable employment–where whites predominate–are forged. (Dana Y. Takagi, 1992).

Hence minorities have been outside the channels leading to well paid jobs controlled by the predominantly white referral unions that recruit by word of mouth. Family or friends had virtually automatic preference for membership cards in such overwhelmingly white labor organizations as the Ironworkers’ Union. Such recruitment by referral unions contributed to the virtual exclusion of minorities from employment on public construction projects until affirmative action enforcement brought some improvement in the recruitment and retention of minorities.

Minorities also lack personal connections to residents of all-white suburbs where many new jobs have been created. That adverse effect on minorities is exacerbated when suburban employers rely on “walk-in” applicants from these white neighborhoods. Because whites disproportionately occupy elected government office, especially the more powerful positions, minorities suffer from the widespread use of political patronage to distribute government jobs.

Although the lack of personal connections to the job market is in most cases an institutional barrier to employment for minorities, it arises in large part from segregation created by overtly racist practices. The segregation of minorities in schools, housing, accommodations, and public and private facilities was imposed by whites throughout the nation, either in ready conformity to explicitly racial laws or to the silent toleration of violence against minorities who dared to cross racial barriers. Today widespread segregation continues as an inherited social structure, excluding minorities from white residential areas and neighborhood schools, where they might develop white connections leading to employment. That structure of “ghettoization” is sustained by pervasive housing discrimination against minorities who wish to move into white areas.
The isolation of minorities from white society is also sustained by widespread racist attitudes that exclude minorities from white clubs and social circles where networks leading to jobs are formed. Even mild unconscious racial prejudice tends to cut minorities off from relations of friendship and intimacy with whites. (D. Keith Denton, 1992).

Recruitment and retention by personal connections also tends to keep minorities at the bottom of the occupational ladder. Because individuals often hear of openings in their own kind of work, they tend to funnel such information to relatives and acquaintances. Thus both black and white workers informally recruit to their types of jobs. Because minorities are disproportionately represented in bottom level positions, their personal recruitment tends to maintain occupational segregation. Continued perception of minorities in menial, undesirable jobs reinforces the racist conception that minorities belong there. Thus, although selection by personal connections is intrinsically free of bias, its ties to overt racism–past, present, and future–justify characterization of its adverse impact on minorities as racist impact.

Although black-white inequality of educational attainment has been substantially reduced in some respects, such as in the amount of schooling received and the level of reading, nevertheless requirements for a college diploma and for adequate test scores continue to exclude minorities from employment and from postgraduate schools that provide training for desirable positions. Similarly, requirements for certain work experience and vague personality traits have a negative impact in employment.

Overt racism, especially in its contribution to segregating minorities from whites throughout society, makes a significant contribution to the racist impact of qualification requirements on minorities. Millions of black persons still in the labor force today attended legally segregated public schools in seventeen southern states and the District of Columbia, where a presumption of black inferiority–destructive to their self-confidence–was pervasive, and where, because of gross discrimination in funding, black schools were invariably inferior. Many minorities are excluded by requirements for work experience because as students they had been barred from white schools where relevant training was available or had been denied work experience and training by prejudiced supervisors and employers. (Cheryl Holcomb-Mccoy, Carla Bradley, 2003)

Overt housing discrimination affecting all economic classes of minorities works indirectly to reduce the achievement of black youngsters by contributing to the significant racial segregation of neighborhood schools. The positive effect of socialization within white families on black children’s test scores is indicated in a comparative study of black children adopted by middle-class parents, white and black. The children adopted by white middle-class parents scored significantly higher on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children than did the children adopted by black middle-class parents. The scoring difference is of the magnitude “typically found between the average scores of black and white children.”

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The racist impact of qualification requirements in employment is the terminus of a cumulative impact that begins in school. Black students are vulnerable to traditional practices such as standardized testing and tracking–that is, ability grouping in schools–which place them disproportionately at the bottom level, sometimes at a very early age, where, deprived of educational resources and instruction in higher-order skills, they have little possibility of moving up. In the job market the vulnerability of minorities to qualification requirements is exacerbated when employers insist on credentials such as higher-education diplomas that are not related to work performance. Such requirements have had a severe effect on black employment. Irrelevant testing excluded minorities even from such dead-end work as dishwashing.

An important race-neutral qualification standard in the academic marketplace is published research. Taking Harvard University as an example, sociologist Thomas Pettigrew shows how this requirement adversely affects black candidates. In the 1930s, Harvard developed criteria for tenured faculty appointment, which included scholarly publication. The purpose was to ensure a faculty of high quality. Publication requirements, however, worked against the recruitment of black professors because the majority taught heavy course loads in predominantly black colleges, which limited their time for research and writing. This concentration of minorities in predominantly black colleges has links to a racist past, because black academics were initially excluded by racist attitudes from many white departments. Hence in the 1970s, when some predominantly white universities following affirmative action requirements sought black professors, black college faculty were less able to fill their race-neutral publication requirements. (Gregory B. Lewis, Samantha L. Durst, 1995).

Although qualification requirements are intrinsically bias-free, they can be manipulated by racist employers and union officials to exclude minorities. Thus while some employers who set irrelevant higher education requirements may simply have undue reverence for diplomas, many are not unhappy that their requirements tend to keep minorities out. According to one legal scholar, raising qualification criteria has been a “common device of employers and construction unions” when, because of civil rights law, hiring and promotion of minorities appeared likely.
Vague subjective standards, such as “fitting in,” “personality,” “vigor,” and “self-confidence”–widely used for promotion-easily serve racial prejudice. In Rowe v. General Motors Co., the court stated that promotion procedures that depend on “subjective evaluation” by immediate supervisors are a “ready mechanism” for covert race discrimination. The court expressed skepticism that minorities, dependent on whites for decisive recommendation, can expect impartiality.

Seniority status determines promotion, layoff, and job termination for vast numbers of employees: professionals, managers, clericals, skilled, and unskilled workers. Seniority systems have brought significant benefits to American workers. Promotion based on seniority enables harmony, cooperation, and solidarity to replace an ugly scramble for advancement over one’s co-workers. Seniority-determined layoff protects workers against arbitrary dismissal due to an employer’s whim, malice, or prejudice. Strengthened by such security, many workers have gained in dignity and self-esteem and are less tempted to pander to supervisors or accept humiliating conditions. An older auto worker told me that before the union had negotiated a seniority system his supervisor would invite subordinates over on Sunday to mow his lawn. With the protection of a seniority system, workers can demand to be treated with a measure of respect. Egalitarian philosophers, that is, those committed to equal economic reward, may note that seniority-based benefit systems constitute a significant egalitarian substructure in the hierarchy of employment. Insofar as seniority determines promotion, pay, and job security, protected employees tend to gain equally throughout their working lives.

But seniority, in itself race-neutral, has disproportionately benefited white workers. Hired in most cases ahead of minorities, whites halve enjoyed higher seniority status. Minorities felt the racist impact of such past hiring discrimination when, as less senior, they were less likely to gain promotion and more likely to lose their jobs in economic recessions.
In the 1970s minorities, hired under affirmative action programs in private and public employment (e.g., as teachers, police, and firefighters), were devastated by seniority-based layoffs–a consequence of three recessions and severe government budget cutbacks. Such layoffs threaten minorities again in the 1990s.

As job losers, minorities tend to move down to unskilled temporary work or to no work at all. This downward move is facilitated by their lack of significant financial assets, which often makes job retraining unfeasible. Whites have eleven times the wealth of minorities; one-third of all minorities have no major assets whatsoever except for cash on hand. Thus seniority-based layoffs of minorities, including those hired because of affirmative action programs, increases the concentration of minorities at the bottom of the occupational ladder or among the unemployed, thereby reinforcing the racist stereotype of minorities as inferior.

Although long-term black employees have the benefit of high seniority ranking, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act many continued to suffer the racist impact of departmental seniority arrangements. Under such arrangements, a worker who transfers from one department to another loses all seniority credit. Although departmental seniority is a race-neutral practice, it perpetuates the victimizing effect of past overtly racist job assignment. Newly hired minorities in northern and southern plants had traditionally been assigned to segregated departments where they labored in the most undesirable, low-paying jobs, for example, at garbage disposal, the blast furnaces and the coke ovens, and in the foundries. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black workers could no longer be legally prevented from transfer to the better, white departments. But under departmental seniority arrangements, transfers were stripped of all seniority, and so they descended to the bottom rung for promotion and layoff. Thus minorities naturally tended to remain in the racially segregated departments, where they had originally been assigned by biased company supervisors. (Willie Brisco, Charlotte Forh, Vic Haynes, Barbara Wheeler, 2004)

Today, while some minorities have moved on up, it is still true that the more disagreeable the job, the greater the chance of finding a high proportion of minorities doing it. The racially exclusionary impact of race-neutral policies on employment also contributes to the official black unemployment rate as perpetually double that of whites, thereby reinforcing the racist view of minorities as unwilling to work. Thus these race neutral policies function as social mechanisms through which the victimizing effects of overt racism, past and present, continue to keep minorities at the bottom levels of employment.

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  • Cheryl Holcomb-Mccoy, Carla Bradley (2003). Recruitment and Retention of Ethnic Minority Counselor Educators: An Exploratory Study of CACREP-Accredited Counseling Programs; Counselor Education and Supervision, Vol. 42
  • D. Keith Denton (1992). Recruitment, Retention, and Employee Relations: Field-Tested Strategies for the ’90s; Quorum Books
  • Dana Y. Takagi (1992). The Retreat from Race: Asian-American Admissions and Racial Politics; Rutgers University Press
  • Gregory B. Lewis, Samantha L. Durst (1995). Will Locality Pay Solve Recruitment and Retention Problems in the Federal Civil Service? Public Administration Review, Vol. 55
  • Willie Brisco, Charlotte Forh, Vic Haynes, Barbara Wheeler (2004). Minority Recruitment: For the 21st Century; Corrections Today, Vol. 66, August
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