What is the Rooney Rule? Here are the pros and cons of the popular diversity initiative.
The Rooney Rule is one of many tools companies should be using to diversify their ranks. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

What is the Rooney Rule? Here are the pros and cons of the popular diversity initiative.

The push to diversify corporate America and the tech industry has come in fits and starts. For example, big companies like Google and Facebook began publishing their demographic information years ago in a gesture of accountability. And yet the most recent version of the influential Atlassian report found that progress toward workplace diversity may actually be trending in the wrong direction.

While 80% of employees say their employer’s diversity and inclusion initiatives are important, Atlassian found that actual participation in these efforts declined across the board since last year. Predictably, less than a third of underrepresented groups say they feel like they belong.

One tactic companies are increasingly looking to is the so-called Rooney Rule. Named for former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the rule required NFL teams to interview at least one person of color for head coaching positions. The rule later expanded to general manager positions, the New Yorker reported. Rooney’s hometown of Pittsburgh also recently adopted a version of the rule, according to CityLab, with the hopes of bringing people of diverse backgrounds into city government leadership positions.

Tech giant Amazon agreed to formalize the Rooney Rule on Monday after facing criticism from shareholders and employees alike for its all-white board of directors. And following a recent Recode article about Facebook’s leadership shuffle, several observers noted that among the company’s product heads, women were outnumbered by men named “Chris.”

Implementing the Rooney Rule might sound like a smart public relations move, but will it actually work the way it’s intended? Here’s where the policy comes up short — as well as some of the other steps companies can take to become more inclusive.

Amazon will adopt the Rooney Rule amid pressure from shareholders and employees.
Amazon will adopt the Rooney Rule amid pressure from shareholders and employees. David Zalubowski/AP

Limitations of the Rooney Rule

A common criticism of the Rooney Rule is it’s a form of “checking the box.” In other words, saying you interviewed a woman or person of color for a certain job isn’t the same thing as actually hiring them — yet it still makes companies feel like they’re accomplishing something in the name of diversity. And there may be some truth to this fear, University of Colorado professor of management Stefanie Johnson wrote in Harvard Business Review.

According to Johnson’s research, the Rooney Rule can backfire if you don’t take it far enough. If you’re interviewing one woman and five white men for a job, that woman is really going to stand out — and if it’s a manner of practice to interview at least one nonwhite male for the job, people may assume that candidate is less deserving.

To really have meaningful impact on an organization, Johnson wrote, the Rooney Rule would require homogeneous organizations to interview at least two candidates from underrepresented groups. For example, if the rule were taken one step farther in the NFL — where African-Americans make up 70% of the players but only 25% of coaches — Johnson estimates the percentage of black coaches would rise to one-third. That’s an extra 2.5 coaches, a significant increase in a group of 32.

Other ways companies can become more inclusive

The Rooney Rule is obviously not a silver bullet: Amazon employs more than a half a million people, according to some estimates. Adding a person of color or an extra woman to your board is unlikely to induce a cultural sea change in an organization of that size, particularly when its ranks of well-compensated engineers are still likely mostly men.

Diversity also means different things to different people, which is why a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work.

This suggests companies need to employ top-down and bottom-up efforts simultaneously by ensuring multiple underrepresented candidates are interviewed for both the most high-profile roles and entry-level positions.

Employees have a strong voice. As Recode reported, Amazon employees “peppered” executives about the lack of progress on the company’s diversity initiatives, which put added pressure on the board to formally adopt the Rooney Rule.

Sensing a lack of diversity at your own company? In addition to a souped-up Rooney Rule, advocating for a more transparent hiring process — specifically by listing the number of applicants, according to some research — may help draw in a more diverse candidate pool.

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