D&I Hiring Spiked in 2020. Was it a moment or a movement?
Stephanie: What exactly does a diversity, equity and inclusion or DE& I executive do? Their job is to recruit diverse employees, retain them, and help companies create a more inclusive environment overall. And in the last five years, this job title has grown over 100%, which is good, but slow, because by the beginning of 2020, only 40% of Fortune 500 companies even had diversity executives. Then spring comes, and between the tragic death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, and controversial online movements like Blackout Tuesday, companies were forced to reevaluate their prioritization of diversity. By the end of the year, the number of D& I execs at Fortune 500 companies had tripled. Today's guest, Debbie Tang, is a partner at a D& I focused recruiting firm, and she has seen the calls for D& I time and time again. So while corporate America has seen a rise in D& I execs, countless social media posts of support, and large donations to match, does the data reflect a moment in time or a movement for a more equitable future? That, and more on this week's episode of Talk Data to Me. Let's start with your name and your title.
Debbie Tang: Okay. My name is Debbie Tang and I am a partner at Bridge Partners.
Stephanie: So how did you get into recruiting?
Debbie Tang: I know. It's a very... No one goes to school thinking," When I grew up, I'm going to be a head Hunter."
Stephanie: Tell us the story. Lay it out.
Debbie Tang: So I guess it starts in college, right? In some ways. So I studied political science and economics and wanted to go to law school. I wanted to study international human rights. So I wanted to be an international human rights lawyer, and then applied to law school. I went to law school at Washington Lee in Virginia, and I got to law school and I found out, oh, there's about two jobs in international human rights law. I maybe should have thought this out a little bit more. And so at that point, I went down like the corporate law trail, which is what a lot of lawyers do, and I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. And so after practicing at big law firms for about six or seven years, I got a call to go in- house at Marriott and become a internal lawyer for them. And I liked that better, but it still wasn't satisfying that part of me that likes to help people. And so one of my good friends from law school said," I think you would really like recruiting," and I was like," What are you talking about?" She'd actually never practiced. She went right into recruiting. And so I followed her advice. And so I joined a company that is one of the largest legal recruiters in the world. And I recruited lawyers, which was very natural for a lawyer. So I recruited general councils and other top lawyers for companies and for nonprofits and various other organizations. And I did that for about six or seven years before I got a call from my current company, Bridge Partners. And Bridge Partners is unique in that we're a minority- owned executive search firm and that we focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. And so that's just not that common, right? So executive search is a lot like a lot of other industries. It's very, what is it? Pale, male, stale. And so to have a minority- owned firm that was already intriguing, and the fact that they focused on diversity, something that I was passionate about, it was kind of a no- brainer. And then when they told me that their placements were over 75% executives of color, I was sold because I had never heard stats like that before anywhere, no matter the size of the organization. So now I've been at Bridge for almost four years.
Stephanie: Do you find diversity recruiting to be more rewarding than other types of recruiting?
Debbie Tang: So for me, I always say it's not just business, it's personal. So I am an Asian- American woman. I came up through big law firms. And when I was an associate, I did not see partners that looked like me, right? And that's a tough road to hoe and I think that it's one that is still, unfortunately in terms of numbers, similar to this day. So I graduated law school in 2003. And it's interesting because I think 2003 or 2002 might've been one of the first years where law school entry was 50/50 male female. That's what? 15, 17 years ago. But in terms of partners in law firms, it is nowhere near 50/50 male female still.
Stephanie: What has been the most rewarding part of the job for you?
Debbie Tang: In terms of the success, right? One of the things that I really value and I think other people value too is longevity in an organization. And so a lot of times when I had placed somebody, and five years later, six years later, 10 years later they're still at that job and they're still contributing and they're still doing amazing things. When you look at the numbers of like diverse CEOs or CFOs or general counsels, it's very easy to try to make it like," Okay, let's try to get to this many diverse CEOs in the Fortune 500, this many CFOs and in the Fortune 500," and that's very easy to measure. And so that's great, but sometimes it's not about what you can measure. Because if you were to put somebody who was like a long time CFO into a CEO role, and as a CEO, they've made an impact on not just their own company, but the industry as a whole, then that's amazing. It's not just a pure numbers game.
Stephanie: What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you?
Debbie Tang: So for me, they're all very unique, sort of every piece of it. And I think it's interesting to see how it has evolved over the years. Because people used to just talk about diversity, right? And I think people have described it very, it's sort of cliche, but diversity is getting invited to the dance, right? Inclusion is being asked to dance, and equity is like being able to DJ, right? And so they're all important. And I think the conversation has evolved and I'm so glad that it has, because I think, for a long time, it was just about checking the boxes, just like," Oh, great, look at us, we have one Asian and one Black executive and one Latinx executive, we're doing great," right? But it's not just the numbers because a lot of times, there's a huge effort on recruitment. And in the legal industry, I saw that a lot, a lot of emphasis on," Oh, let's make sure that our summer associate class," which is who they groom to potentially be a full- time employee after they finish law school," let's make sure that our summer associate class is really balanced and really diverse," but it's not always the people that end up being partners. And so when there's that disconnect, it's just not, it's not authentic. It is just checking a box, just saying," We did it." And if you don't make any efforts in retention, that's why the numbers look the way they do at the partner level.
Stephanie: What do you think that means for retention?
Debbie Tang: So in terms of retention, a lot of it is just making sure that there's a culture of caring and a culture of inclusion, and making sure that this is someplace where people know that they have a chance to succeed. Because I think that that is what keeps people at organizations. And I think that some of it is the diversity piece and seeing," Oh, okay, I'm looking at the C- suite, I'm looking at the board," I see people who look like me," that's a piece of it. But I think even more, a lot of times, you're not going to get that. And so if you do find sponsors, mentors, allies, even if they don't look like you, that's just as important to have folks who are in the majority who are cheering you on and then mentoring you and making sure that you know how to be successful at that organization.
Stephanie: Implementing DE& I programs is one thing, and then having people of color that are actually in the workplace in leadership positions is another, and then having that culture piece is yet another. There's so many components.
Debbie Tang: There are. And we do a lot of chief diversity officer searches, right? And I think that a lot of times, the chief diversity officer is given this monumental task of sort of like," Fix us, fix our problems. Why don't we have enough diversity in our junior ranks? Why don't we have enough diversity in our senior ranks?" And it's not something that one person can solve. There was a CEO that I chatted with a while ago, and this was one of my favorite... He's a older white gentleman. And he said to me, when I asked him, I was like," Oh, so what does your DEI staff look like? What's the budget? How many people are on the team?" And he's like," I consider every single employee at the company part of the DEI team." And that's what you really need, is that you need that to pervade your entire culture at every level. And let people know that DEI is not just for people of color. DEI literally means everybody. That's the inclusion part, right? And so any employee, no matter what level you are, you got to be there for your fellow colleagues.
Stephanie: Right. So when you mentioned that there are signifiers you see that tip you off that companies are doing DE& I efforts performatively, are there signifiers that jump out to you where you feel like," Oh, this company is doing this really well."
Debbie Tang: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are many examples of companies that are doing DEI the right way. And I think that the ones that are, it's not necessarily diverse leadership, right? Because that is something that it can take a little while to get there. Just because a company has majority white C- suite or majority white board, that doesn't mean that they're not doing well in terms of diversity. And so the places that I think are doing it well, what they do is really embed it in the culture, embed it in the values, right? Everyone talks about their company values and a lot of places have diversity as a company value, but you know the places that really are walking the walk, rather than just talking the talk. You see it in a happy workplace. It's as simple as that. At the end of the day, with diversity, equity and inclusion, you just want everyone to be in a place where they're happy to work there. And they're happy to work there because they know that they are being valued, that they are going to succeed if they work hard. And it's not just going to be sort of," Okay, no matter what I do this, this is the only path for me."
Stephanie: Switching gears a little bit. I want to get your opinion on some larger trends that we're seeing. The first piece of data is that ZoomInfo found that 40% of Fortune 500 companies currently have DE& I executives. Why do you think the number is so low in 2020?
Debbie Tang: So this is the thing, right? It goes in waves, sadly, when it's trendy and what it's not. And so, one of the things that I saw just based on the past nine months alone, when I was talking to chief diversity officers in March, April times, everybody was saying," Oh, my budget's getting cut. My staff is getting cut. I don't know what's going to happen. Oh, Asian Pacific Heritage Month is in two months, and if I want to put on a program, it's going to be with an internal speaker. I can't bring somebody from outside." So that was March and April. And then sadly, after the murder of George Floyd, then every CEO is making statements. Everybody is sort of jumping on this diversity bandwagon. And all of a sudden, all these companies that have never had a chief diversity officer are saying," Oh, okay, that's what we need. That's what's going to fix our, fix our issues, fix our problems," and that's just not how it works. And so right now, I talk with my colleagues about this all the time, is it a moment or is it a movement? I mean, we would love for it to be a movement because that's what we were founded 20 years ago with that belief and with that mission, but I am a little bit skeptical, right? That all these places that are saying," Okay, I want a chief diversity officer," if the downturn were to continue, then is that person going to get cut in six months? And that's one of the things that we actually vet our clients on is, before we take on a position, especially a chief diversity officer position, are you doing it for the right reasons? What supports will this person have? Who are they going to report to? Are they reporting to the head of HR or are they reporting to the CEO? That makes a huge difference. What kind of team do you think you're going to be able to give them? What kind of budget are you going to give them? And honestly, we don't take every client because we think that some of these positions are really half- baked and we would never want to put somebody in a job where they're just window dressing or just a token.
Stephanie: So what is a half- baked position to you? Explain to me what is a position you would see where you immediately go," That's not something that we want to take on."
Debbie Tang: If the chief diversity officer is three levels down from the CHRO, that is not the right priority. If the chief diversity officer is not a peer of the C- suite, that is not necessarily what we want to see. If they have no budget, if they are a one man or woman show, that's also, depending on the size of the organization, a really tough place to be. I think that one of the things that is tough and I think it is very performative is when they say," Okay, this client is a manufacturer in bottling in Ohio, and they're like,'We want a Black male and we only want a Black male.'" And you're kind of like, well, the problem is you can't make somebody up. You have a very specific want in terms of somebody in the Midwest who is a CEO in a very specific industry. And sometimes when people give us those very specific stats and they're like," Find us a Black male," then you kind of know it is performative because it's not just about race and gender. You want the best person. And I think that when they are so specific and narrow in their desire, it just shows that they're not thinking about what diversity and inclusion truly means.
Speaker 3: Actually, this is kind of surprising to me at this point, because you would think if she has this mission of kind of bringing D& I and getting in diverse hires into these executive positions, that she would really just want to take on any client and that she wouldn't be particularly picky about a good client because it's such a good cause.
Stephanie: Right. And I would think that too at first, but then listening to her talk about it, I think I had the realization that vetting and being picky with the types of clients in the same way that you would be picky with the candidates that you're choosing is actually the mark of a really good recruiting firm because they're not just taking anybody on. And I guess I agree because since it's diversity, you think that you want to bring that change to every client that is stepping forward, but not every client really actually wants to make that change is what she's saying I think. So going back to what you said about how people are claiming their budgets are getting cut in March and April, it's interesting that you mentioned that timeline because another piece of data that we have is on the week of Blackout Tuesday, companies' interest in the topic of diversity services went up by 614%.
Debbie Tang: Yeah. It's not surprising, right? And I think that that is one of the things that worries me about the movement versus moment piece of it. A lot of places, CEOs, boards, corporations, they see everybody else doing it and they're kind of like," Oh, yeah, yeah, we should do it too. We care too. We're going to do it." But the problem is it's not always authentic, right? Because if you were that same company that just cut your chief diversity officer staff two months ago, why am I believing you that you care two months later?
Stephanie: So another sort of piece of that story is on the week of Blackout Tuesday also, their interest in the topic of women empowerment increased by 406%. And then about a month later, the interest in the topic of gender gap increased by 555%.
Debbie Tang: Data tells it, right? It tell us the story. There are trends, and the hope is that gender diversity, racial diversity, that these aren't just topics because something happened, right? These are things that need to sustain if we want to have the type of corporation, society that I think we all want to live in. It can't be just knee- jerk reactions all the time and what's trendy and what everybody else is doing.
Stephanie: In a similar vein, just thinking about how Blackout Tuesday, interest in diversity services increases, and then the interest in women's issues increases, how do you think intersectionality has impacted efforts towards ending racism?
Debbie Tang: I think that intersectionality is not something that the average person thinks about a lot. There's room for everybody and everyone has so many pieces to them, right? It's not so simple as just," Oh, well she is an Asian female." It's like, well, I'm also the child of immigrants, right? I also am the first person in my family with a graduate degree. Like there's a lot of things that people take for granted. I mean, that's sort of like the root of racism itself, right? Every wants to put things in simple boxes and just say like," Oh, okay, this person is this, so they're that. This person is this, so they're that," but intersectionality just kind of throws it off for a loop because it's like, no, it's not that simple and we all have a lot to us. And I think that in terms of sort of getting people to understand that term and not be afraid of it would be a great thing. Because I think it was a month or two ago, whenever Trump issued that executive order saying that diversity training had to be, not banned in the government, but he basically was saying we're not going to talk about white fragility, we're not going to talk about intersectionality, we're not going to talk about critical race theory. You can't have productive conversations, you can't move forward as a society, you can't talk honestly about race, gender, anything unless you have this sort of shared vocabulary. I work a lot with my kids' schools too on issues about race. And I think that a lot of times, the same thing happens with kids and adults in corporations as in schools. You don't have a shared vocabulary and everyone's afraid to say something that's going to offend somebody else. And it's kind of like you've got to get over that. You've got to get to a point where you can have an honest dialogue in order to make progress, right?
Stephanie: Say, take Blackout Tuesday, for example, or any other situation where it may be more of a moment instead of a movement, do you think that those moments are still helpful at all?
Debbie Tang: If we can't take advantage of the moments and if we can't try to squeeze as much as we can out of the moments, then you're losing sight of what the overall mission is. I mean, would I rather it be a movement that everybody subscribes to? Of course, but we'll take the moments too.
Stephanie: Yeah, that makes sense. Last piece of data I want to mention is even though the numbers are overall small, the percentage increase of new hires for people who have DE& I titles went up by 113% in the past five years. Does that surprise you?
Debbie Tang: It doesn't surprise me because I think that that movement in terms of DEI titles, that's been in the works for a while. And I think that what has happened in the last couple of months in terms of Black Lives Matter, that only is just pushing it more to the forefront. So progress is slow and steady, right? A lot of times, especially when it comes to DEI, there are trends. For a while, everyone's talking about like carbon footprint and sustainability and ESG, and you have to just kind of take advantage of it when you can. When it is the topic of conversation, to try to do as much as you can at that point and you got to keep the dialogue going, keep it moving forward.
Stephanie: Being an advocate in the field, how do you keep up the energy to keep pushing year after year and constantly put in so much effort to keep the ball rolling?
Debbie Tang: No, it's true. And I think it can be exhausting, right? Because it's often leaders of color that are expected to be the ones who are the executive sponsor for the ERG, right? Or whatever the case may be. The way that I see it is that my kids are children of color who will become adults of color, and anything that I do to to make the world better for them, to even the playing field a little bit for them, I'm happy to do that. So that's one of the ways that I think about it. And that's just sort of just generally in life, right? Leaves the world a better place than you found it. It's not always easy to do, but I can't make myself un- Asian or un- female, right? Like that's who I am and that's who I'll always be. And people will see that and people will make assumptions. And the hope is that we get to a place where, for my kids, when they see their Asian faces, that they're not going to make assumptions because people are going to get to know them for who they are and that hopefully they will find success in whatever field they want to do and not be limited by stereotypes or things like that.
Stephanie: So in thinking about your experience in diversity recruiting, what is one of the biggest mistakes that you see companies making when it comes to DE& I efforts?
Debbie Tang: Yeah, so one of the things that drives me crazy, and I've heard it from many, many companies. They'll say," Oh, but we don't want to sacrifice talent." And nothing makes me more angry, right? Because in terms of talented women, talented executives of color, and diversity obviously is more than just gender and race, but I really am bothered by the fact that people still so freely think that to hire an executive of color that you're sacrificing something, that you're not getting the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the brightest. That really annoys me.
Stephanie: Yeah. That's a great example. What do you think is the biggest misconception about the diversity of recruiting field?
Debbie Tang: So I think that the biggest misconception is that people think that sort of everybody and anybody can do it, but the problem is, these networks, these candidate pools, these relationships, they're built over time. They're not overnight. And so in terms of the relationships that we have, we've cultivated that over years. And people trust us, right? And so in terms of how to really tell a story for your client and being able to tell an authentic story of why they're interested in diversity and inclusion, that's something that not all recruiters are going to be able to do. And I'm not saying that it's based along race. I'm just saying in terms of when someone hires Bridge Partners and they know that Bridge Partners' placements are over 75% executives of color, that's a different story. And so they know that our clients are serious about it. And so for people to kind of say," Oh, anybody can do diversity recruiting. I'll just call diverse candidates only and then we'll have a diverse placement," but it's like, are they going to answer your call? Maybe not.
Stephanie: Yeah. So how do you go about finding diverse candidates?
Debbie Tang: There's always going to be a good amount of research, because I think one of the big problems in executive search and one of the big reasons why it is so non- diverse is because people call the same people. Let's say an African American female general counsel will come to me and say," Hey, this company, this recruiting company is calling me for the sixth time this year. I'm always number two or number three. I'm never the one who actually gets the job and I'm starting to think that I am just there to check that box, to fill that quota, to say that,'Oh, look, we did provide you a diverse slate. There was this African- American female candidate there.'" And that is what I hate to see because that person's not given a real chance and they're not considered a real candidate. When people are constantly being reached out to in that way, that's not how you build a relationship. That's not how you build a diverse pool.
Stephanie: Have you personally worked for any companies that you felt didn't necessarily create the most inclusive environment?
Debbie Tang: So for myself, I think I've been lucky, but I hear a lot of stories. And one of the things I've seen a lot of, and it's unfortunate, is places where they make a huge effort on recruiting, whether it's kids out of college or even mid- level managers or whatever it is, they do this great job with diversity recruiting in the lower levels, but then there's no pipeline, no high potential programs for them. There's no mentorship. There's no path to success. And so I think that that is one of the things that plagues a lot of organizations. You're kind of looking at it in pieces and they're not looking at it holistically. And when that happens, then you get some great numbers at junior and mid- level positions, but then the senior ranks look terrible.
Stephanie: Taking a more current spin on it, how do you think that the pandemic is affecting DEI efforts?
Debbie Tang: The pandemic and the intersection with Black Lives Matter and all the social justice movements and everything that happened this summer has made it very different in terms of the conversation that was being had in March is not the conversation that's being had in December. And it's a good thing, but in terms of the pandemic generally, I think that people, one of the things that's nice is because everybody's remote now, that actually can help in terms of diversity recruiting. A lot of times there are different demands on people that are based on like geography and things like that. And when you don't have a commute and when you don't have to relocate and you don't have to uproot your family, that actually just makes for a bigger pool of folks who could be qualified or interested for a job. And that's always a good thing, right?
Stephanie: Yeah, that's a really good point. I did not think of that. Where do you see the field of diversity recruiting going?
Debbie Tang: I do think that there are some exciting developments, and you can't discount those, right? So California a couple of years ago passed a law saying that all their public companies have to have at least one woman director. That's great. And then just a couple of months ago, a couple of weeks ago, they said, okay, all public companies in California have to have also a diverse board member too, an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ. Those are all great. Right. And then, was it NASDAQ now that's saying that anybody who's listed on NASDAQ, they've got to have at least one diverse board member? I don't think that it's necessarily company policy yet, but they raised it as something that they want to try to do. So these are all amazing things, right? And I'm so happy that we're making that progress, but I think that it is the job of all of us to sort of keep that going and not be satisfied with just one. Because I think that a lot of times, it is about the allies and it is about the other folks who are going to keep the dialogue strong and continued. Because when you only rely on people of color to be making these decisions or pushing these conversations, it gets exhausting.
Stephanie: What would you want people who are not in diversity recruiting, who are not in leadership positions at companies, maybe like individual contributors, what should they know?
Debbie Tang: I mean, honestly, it just boils down to the golden rule, right? It seems so basic, but what it comes down to is just treat everybody how you want to be treated. And, at the end of the day, that's something that you can do at any level of your company. It doesn't matter if you are the lowest man on the totem pole, treat others with respect and honor people for who they are and they're going to do the same for you.
Speaker 3: It seems easy. It seems straightforward like of course I would do that, but then when you really look back and you question," Okay, am I really treating all candidates equally? Are we really exploring all the sort of sources of where people could come from? Are we looking at a diverse amount of backgrounds of people who could do those jobs?" you might kind of very quickly realize you might not be treating all of your prospective job people coming in equally.
Stephanie: Right. Like it's a simplistic concept, but then when you actually start to look at your own internal biases and institutional racism, it becomes incredibly complex.
Speaker 3: Yeah. And I mean, it's like one of those things where everybody would be like," No, of course as a company, we would never discriminate." And then you look at the percentage of people of color within tech, within sales or within marketing, or anything like that, and you're like," Well, clearly the numbers are going in one direction." It's a predominantly white field. We haven't hired a lot of people of color over the last couple of years, you can see that, Or we don't have a lot of people of color in executive positions. I think that's the part that it's balancing out bias that is proved out in data. With everybody having the same sort of good intent, you realize that there's something, there's a mismatch where people are not necessarily following that sort of simple golden rule advice.
Stephanie: Yeah. I think overall, the whole episode sort of just serves as a great example of why you can't always take data at face value, because the data really does tell one story and it is part of the truth, but then there's a whole other set of deeper questions that you have to ask. Thanks for listening to this episode of Talk Data to Me. If you don't want to miss the data we're talking about next, subscribe on Apple or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you're feeling extra generous, leave us a review. It would be a super nice thing to do and we'd really appreciate it. This episode was produced by me, Stephanie inaudible, with help from Sam Baltar and Casted Productions. Big thank you to Debbie for coming on the show and the rest of the team at Bridge Partners for all the incredible work that you do. Thanks again, and see you next time on Talk Data to Me.
The data shows progress: Diversity & Inclusion job titles are on the rise; more Fortune 500 companies are hiring diversity execs; and companies are even doing more online research on topics related to diversity.
But just because the data tells a story doesn’t mean it’s the whole story.
Join us as Debbie Tang, Diversity Recruiter and Partner at Bridge Partners, poses questions about the positive changes made in 2020, namely: Is this for good, or is it just for now?