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David D'Alessandro

The great lie in African-American hiring

"I TRIED to hire an African-American, there were just no qualified applicants available, and I really need to fill the job soon."

I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times in my Boston career as an employer, board member, or adviser I have heard and still hear this comment when a management person is unable to fill a key position with an African-American.

It is a great lie.

Most times, managers have not searched diligently, or the headhunters are in such a rush to get their fee that they push the more plentiful experienced white candidates because they know managers try to fill jobs quickly before they lose the position for budget reasons or simply because they need the work done fast.

While that will certainly be denied and does not happen everywhere, it occurs more than one imagines.

But this great lie is widely accepted under the premise that if "at least some effort has been made to recruit a black he/she has done their duty." In other words, the "easy out." After all, business needs to go on. The rationale is "That's not prejudice - we tried."

Not all organizations and companies let managers get away with it that easily, but take a good look around. Certainly, almost every Boston organization has African-American managers, particularly nonprofits, government, and universities. And some have done a reasonable job in placing qualified blacks in senior positions.

But most private companies struggle with this issue. Especially at the upper-middle and senior ranks. Most of these profit companies are run by a phalanx of white guys, a woman or two, and perhaps a black person is in their midst. There may be a few exceptions, but not many. Just peruse the senior executive and board photos in their annual reports. Case closed.

Now exactly why is that? Well, you hear all types of things. Just last week I was in a board meeting and was told, "Highly qualified blacks won't move to Boston because they think it is still a town of great prejudice. They remember the busing issue, Bill Russell's bitterness, and the Charles Stuart case."

That one statement, which I have heard in many versions a hundred times, usually is a debate stopper. A bit like, "Well, if that's the issue, how does our single organization make a dent in such a deeply seated view? Guess we will just have to live with it." Huh?

One of the more fascinating things about prejudice that leads to this inaction is it's easy to believe such statements whether they are true or not. And that acceptance allows people an excuse to not change the dynamic.

This practice is particularly unacceptable here when you consider that:

Historically, Boston citizens were among the leaders of the Abolition movement.

According to the Census Bureau, 25 percent of Boston's population is black.

Our area colleges and universities enroll thousands of African-American students who come here to be educated - many only to return to hometowns or move on to other cities.

While the government and some private groups have protocols and programs to encourage proactive African-American hiring and it has had some effect, how is it possible that we still allow companies to hide behind the "lack of availability" excuse?

It is because not enough people in power positions care or know what to do about it. Well, the answer is simple. I have seen executives of courage do it and it provides two distinct benefits. More qualified blacks are hired into jobs with good career tracks, and each time that happens the myths and truths about Boston's reputation change for the better.

The answer goes something like this. Whenever a job opening occurs and the company is short on African-American employees, the manager is given the following directive: "You will find and hire a qualified black person. I don't care how long it takes. They are out there and you will find one. And by the way, do not hire one who is destined to fail just to fill the slot. I am holding you personally responsible for that individual's success. Your job is on the line if that person doesn't make it." Amazing how quickly managers miraculously accomplish this task. I have tried it many times. Never fails.

Enough with these lame excuses, whispered prejudices, and just plain ignorance. Time to get rid of the great lie.

David D'Alessandro, a guest columnist, is the former CEO of John Hancock Financial Services.

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