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Illuminating Inequities in Hiring Practices

Building connections across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, Ph.D. student Jeraul Mackey's research examines how organizational culture around entry-level hiring in the nonprofit sector can expand and limit opportunity.
Jeraul Mackey
Photo: Courtesy of Jeraul Mackey

Though many organizations like schools, universities, and nonprofits have a longstanding commitment to honoring diversity, equity, and inclusion in the hiring process, that commitment is not always flushed out fully. Existing research suggests that access to opportunities like education, internships, and first jobs can prevent organizations from realizing this commitment, making identifying the barriers to diversity an essential part of advancing the future of work.

Working as an executive recruiter before coming to Harvard, Ph.D. student Jeraul Mackey, Ed.M.’12, began to form questions about the disconnect between the commitment to equity and the diversity of the candidate pool. “Companies would say we have a chance to hire a CEO, president, executive director and we want to use this as an opportunity to live out our values,” he says. “What happened, more often than not, was that they’d land on what we might think of as the ‘traditional’ or ‘typical’ candidate. And I remember sitting in my office as a recruiter thinking, ‘What’s really happening here?’”

With the space and time to reflect on these questions as a doctoral student, Mackey’s thinking evolved. Hiring for executive positions, he noticed, tended to have a constrained pool of candidates to begin with, as leadership roles, by their nature, required years of experience and management. What if, instead of concentrating on the recruitment of people at the executive level, he looked at candidates for entry level positions?

“I went from executive leadership to the hiring process in these entry level [positions] because these are roles and opportunities that are really a gateway to broader leadership and skill development in the organization,” Mackey says. “They’re also jobs that, because you’re a new entrant to the labor market, don’t have these explicit metrics or criteria to rely on and you really can zone in on how hiring managers are thinking about the position, what they think is important for these roles.”

In focusing on these positions, he also thought about how high schools and colleges were preparing students to enter the job market. Mackey suspected that many organizations have a “hidden curriculum” — the unofficial lessons, values, and norms — embedded in the hiring process. As much as organizations may try to open up their talent pool by removing qualifiers that may hold biases like requiring a college degree or profiling candidates by their names there may be other unspoken barriers to entry.

"More often than not, [companies] land on what we might think of as the ‘traditional’ or ‘typical’ candidate. And I remember sitting in my office as a recruiter thinking, ‘What’s really happening here?’"

“There’s literature that points to the idea that even if you remove these elements, there may be things that are implicit in the culture or embedded. So, you may remove the need for a college degree, but at the same time preference candidates who have a certain level of polish in the way they self-present,” he says. For example, Mackey points out that a cover letter doesn’t just convey a candidate’s experience and interest in a position — it also serves as a writing sample. Additionally, the ways in which candidates present themselves or respond to questions in an interview setting may also be sending implicit messages about their background, education, and belief systems. But the way the hiring process is structured doesn’t allow candidates to receive feedback on their performance, making it difficult to alter candidate behavior that may have been learned through previous experiences in school and academic settings.

Associate Professor Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, Mackey’s adviser, notes that his work illuminates how hiring practices can advance or even undermine the equity goals of public and non-profit institutions. “One thing he finds, for example, is that it is not only the characteristics of job seekers that matter for equity outcomes but also the characteristics and cognition of those making decisions about job seekers,” Bridwell-Mitchell says. “These insights, and Jeraul’s work more broadly, reflect his taking advantage of the unique affordance of the HGSE experience to build connections across both disciplinary and institutional boundaries to answer fundamental questions that matter for the field.”

As a result, Mackey thinks about the way managers and organizations might modify culture and norms to accept and understand candidates with varying experiences and backgrounds. “What’s been interesting about my [national education nonprofit] research sites is thinking about the roles of managers — how the experience of a manager and their seniority within a company really leads to them thinking differently about how they hire these entry level positions,” he says.

He notes that the education and nonprofit sectors provide a novel lens because they are often driven by a mission to increase equity, diversity, and representation. Often, institutions and nonprofits make efforts to embed these values within hiring and company culture. Indeed, compared to for-profit organizations, the nonprofit sector has more women and members of underrepresented communities in leadership roles and may influence the culture around hiring practices. “I find that the role of mission is really critical in terms of who [these organizations] think about moving forward,” Mackey says. “How do they then embed their mission into the hiring practice?”

According to MIT Sloan professor Roberto Fernandez, who sits on Mackey’s dissertation committee, the hiring interface provides a key vantage point for a researcher looking to understand why we may continue to see racial and gender sorting in jobs. “In the years I have known him, Jeraul has developed a good nose for research problems, with an excellent critical an eye for the practical and policy implications of his research,” says Fernandez. 

Mackey’s research is also helping to advance the thinking around and commitment to preparing students for the workforce in education and policy communities. “I think Jeraul's perspective — and experience — on the employer side has the potential to push research and policy communities by reframing how we think about discrimination and inequity in the students' transition to jobs post-schooling,” says Ph.D. colleague Monnica Chan. “As a field, I think we need that — we need work like his to identify and describe the extent and impact of these inequities in order to eradicate them.”

As a recipient of a 2020 AERA Minority Dissertation Fellowship in Education Research, Mackey envisions this evolving understanding of organizational culture contributing not only to how schools and higher education institutions prepare students for the job market but in helping to identify the right candidates to lead change and authentically increase representation within the sector. “I think about organizations that are committed to impact and mission-driven work,” Mackey says. “If I think about the organizations I study and the work I care about, it’s all focused on how we find the right people to drive change and have an impact.” 


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