Skip to content

Moving DE&I in Hiring Beyond the Rooney Rule Checkbox

Posted by Lauren Kendall on July 29, 2021
Even before businesses had access to research showing positive correlation between diversity, profitability, and innovation, organizations realized the need for diverse profiles in leadership positions. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives have been around for decades. Outside of HR and recruiting, however, many people weren’t aware of the work being done to make C-Suites, corporate boards, and senior leadership more diverse. The Rooney Rule was one of the few exceptions. 

First proposed by Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rooney Rule took effect in 2003. In its original form, the Rooney Rule required NFL teams to interview at least one diverse candidate when hiring head coaches or team executives. Lack of diversity plagued the upper echelons of NFL leadership, like it does so many organizations. The Rooney Rule was an ambitious attempt to stop paying lip service to diversity and instead make it a formal part of the recruiting process. Although flawed in many ways, the Rooney Rule is widely credited with increasing diversity within the NFL ranks.

In the nearly 20 years since the Rooney Rule took effect, the concept has evolved and migrated outside of the NFL. Mandating to interview diverse candidates is now common in the world of executive search and recruiting more broadly. The Rooney Rule has helped bring DE&I initiatives into the mainstream and diversify corporate leadership in the process.

But, as the recent conversation around DE&I makes clear, there is still much work to be done. The Rooney Rule has been a bold initiative, but it’s only the first step of a long journey. Companies with a true commitment to making the executive ranks open to all, need to go beyond the Rooney Rule and make diversity a central theme of executive search. We will show you why and how. 

Where the Rooney Rule Falls Short

The Rooney Rule challenges companies to question their preconceived notions about what a leader looks like. It encourages leaders to give marginalized candidates the close consideration they have historically been denied. These are important components of any DE&I initiative – but they’re not enough on their own.

One might argue that the Rooney Rule turns diversity into an obligation rather than a core value. Companies can interview just one diverse candidate, check the Rooney Rule box, and consider their efforts complete.

That might have been sufficient 20 years ago, but we have a better understanding of DE&I now – both where it’s lacking and why that matters.

Companies seeking optimal team dynamics should absolutely make best efforts to have a diverse slate of candidates. But arbitrary interview numbers hundred says little about a company’s true level of commitment to diversity, equality, or inclusivity. It is my opinion that real DE&I efforts are not about meeting quotas or making individual hires. They’re about embracing diversity wholeheartedly and cultivating it organically. Rules can’t do that – only the culture can.

The Cultural Factors that Drive DE&I

Research into successful and unsuccessful DE&I initiatives frequently suggest that truly diverse organizations have three characteristics in common:

Integrated Values – Companies need to make diversity one of their core values, then practice what they preach. This is especially true in executive search. When companies claim to care about diversity but consistently hire similar candidates for executive positions or fail to address claims of unequal treatment, it reveals the status quo to be more important than DE&I. Honest values influence every decision a company makes, without exception.

Proactive Empowerment – The Rooney Rule’s focus on recruiting overlooks the importance of DE&I in employee relations. Diverse companies don’t just hire a variety of talent, they nurture and empower that talent – early, actively, and ambitiously. That means investing in professional development, creating mentor relationships, and developing advancement opportunities for candidates who have been overlooked in the past.

Strong Company Vision – DE&I cannot be limited to a few rules or the occasional initiative. It needs to be an ongoing effort that expands and evolves over time. That can only happen with a clear vision for where the company is now, where it needs to be, and how to get there. To put it differently, DE&I should never get set on cruise control – something the Rooney Rule is guilty of. A strong culture treats this like an issue where improvement is always required and always possible.

Change Starts at the Top

The Rooney Rule focuses on executive search because meaningful change starts at the top of the organization. No DE&I strategy is complete without a strong, sustained effort to make the C-Suite more reflective of society at large. That takes a new mindset along with a different approach to executive search. The work is long overdue, and diversity has countless tangible and intangible benefits.

We know from experience. Our own efforts to go beyond the Rooney Rule have been an important learning experience, and we’re eager to share those insights with clients. Let us help you navigate the intersection of executive search and DE&I to make your C-Suite stronger than ever before.