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Racism in the workplace interview questions

“The Only Black Guy in the Office” is co-published with Levelman.com.


In my very first column, I dropped a quiz on a question anyone from a marginalized community should ask when interviewing for a new job: “How would you define diversity and what is what does that mean to you?” It’s a question that has, for the most part, helped me identify companies that clearly don’t care about making their workforces fair and safe spaces for black employees like me. Yet, lately, I was able to completely remove it from my repertoire.

For the first time in over a year, I played the court for a check on my market value. I’ve noticed things are different this time around, and not just because I’m staring potential employers in the face via my laptop screen. In what is probably the hangover effect of Freedom Summer 2020, the interviewers beat me to the punch when they touched on topics like diversity, equality, and inclusion. It’s an encouraging indicator of the small changes happening in corporate America.

I even saw it on the other side of the interview process. As a member of the DEI committee in my current position, I was tasked with attending Zoom interviews with potential candidates. The process was . . . interesting, to say the least. (And mind-boggling to say the most.) The conversations were conducted in panel style with a few of my colleagues, all of whom are white or passing white. I appreciate being a part of the process, a representative of the color stain employed on the staff, able to use my innate racist radar to help build the best team possible.

We followed a fairly simple script for these interviews: a few questions about backgrounds, successes, failures, decision-making processes, improvisation, leadership, conflict resolution. And then, quite abruptly, we get to the good stuff.

“Tell us about a time when you experienced racism at work.”

My colleague Linda delivers it in the same tongue-in-cheek way every time – I’m starting to suspect she loves getting rid of people. And while I can’t help but feel secondary discomfort, I eat it every time, especially since so far all of the interviewees have been white. And their responses range from empathy to insensitivity.

Admitting that you don’t know everything about the disparities that exist in the workplace is a promising sign of willingness to try to understand the experiences of others.

Our first candidate bluntly stated that she had never encountered racism at work. After a few seconds of radio silence and carefully blank expressions, my colleague Dennis turned to ask, “Well, if you were experiencing racism within a team, how would you handle it? Her response – basically that she trusts company policy, so she would defer to that – was triggering for me. It was as if she was passing the buck to herself and hoping for the best, rather than tapping into her own moral philosophy and acting on it. This is how unbiased systems continue to work exactly as intended; a more accurate metaphor for America than anything I’ve ever written in this column.

I jumped in, Cordial Black Guy and all, and thanked her for her honesty, then launched into the follow-up question she couldn’t have imagined would be next. “So what do you like to do for fun?” (What, can’t we have fun during these interviews?)

I was already put off by the second candidate, this time a white male, before we even got to the DEI question line. His interview strategy was to cram as many buzzwords into each answer as possible. (We get it, man. You’re a “disruptor” who also happens to be an “active listener” and “thought leader.” How does anyone manage to be a rock star and a ninja?) So is he. had never witnessed racism in his professional career, but to his credit he made an effort to tap into relevant experience. He shared a story about supporting and encouraging one of his employees to come forward after she was sexually harassed at a convention. She eventually did, which led to disciplinary action against the offender and some changes to the company’s harassment policy. That was a better answer than Stacey Stacey, though the dude made sure to mention he was an “ally.”

The third person interviewed was another white woman – not quite Goldilocks, but she had the best answer of the three. She brought her own buzzwords, admitting to having “blind spots” when it comes to racism. But she also showed some awareness, citing a meeting in which she vetted a colleague who was making presumptuous comments about low-income families. A private, informal 1:1 conversation followed, she said, in an effort to unpack the damaging thought process and emphasize the importance of mindfulness. It seemed like an honest and impactful example of dealing with a problem with a solid follow-up. And admitting that you don’t know everything about workplace disparities is a promising sign of willingness to try to understand other people’s experiences.

Although we haven’t hired for the job yet, hopefully we’ll get black people in the mix for the job. But if so, I’m going to push to scrub or at least adjust the racism question. Of course, prospects need to be interviewed, and you can’t judge people by the color of their skin alone. But asking a black person if he has experienced racism in corporate America is like asking a fish if he can swim. And imagine how stupid you would look talking to the tuna.


This essay originally appeared on Levelman.com and is reprinted with permission.

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