A Black chief diversity officer lost a job offer after flagging racial bias

A Black chief diversity officer lost a job offer after flagging racial bias

The diversity, equity and inclusion officer said his lawyer was told “I am too sensitive about race issues”

By Curtis Bunn

Joseph B. Hill was four days from starting a new position as vice president, chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, when he received an email that changed the trajectory of his career.

The two-sentence note from Memorial Hermann’s human resources vice president, Lori Knowles, which was obtained by NBC News, read, “We regret to inform you that we are rescinding the offer of employment dated July 21, 2021. ... We appreciate your interest in the position and wish you much success going forward.”

“It was a shock, to say the least,” Hill said. “I was floored.”

He said he was dumbfounded further when his lawyer, Mark Oberti of Houston, was told two weeks later over the phone the reasons Memorial Hermann invalidated its offer: that Hill “was not a good fit,” although he went through more than a dozen interviews over six weeks before he was offered the job. Hill said Oberti was also told by the company’s lawyer that it was uncomfortable with Hill inquiring about hiring staff to build his team; that Hill wanted a larger relocation budget; that he rented and charged a luxury car to the company; and that “I am too sensitive about race issues.”

“The reasons they listed were just as shocking as rescinding the offer,” Hill said.

He felt that way because, he said, much of what Memorial Hermann indicated was “false and nonsensical,” but also because “they didn’t even contact me to discuss their so-called issues.”

Executives at Memorial Hermann declined to comment but issued a statement that read, in part: “We continue to make great strides in enhancing equity, diversity and inclusion within our system, but we know there is always more that can be done — which is why we are recruiting for a Chief EDI Officer.” Through a lawyer, the hospital system also said that “no one acting on behalf of Memorial Hermann ever criticized Mr. Hill for being ‘too sensitive about race issues.’”

Hill’s case draws into focus concerns some experienced Black DEI officers expressed about the overall commitment by employers to making internal changes. After the social justice movement following the murder of George Floyd, many business leaders announced plans to address diversity imbalance in the workforce by hiring DEI personnel.

However, the pledge to do so has gone unfulfilled on the director level, according to a report examining diversity in 2,868 American workplaces. The report indicated the percentage of Black DEI directors barely increased: from 11.3 percent in 2020 and 11.5 percent for 2021.

More concerning to specialists in the diversity space is that the efforts are not sincere and the hiring practices are “misguided,” they say.

Chris Metzler, former associate dean for human resources and diversity studies at Georgetown University, created DEI certification programs at Cornell University and Georgetown, which many professionals in that discipline consider the gold standard. For all the efforts to make organizations diverse and comfortable for all employees, Metzler called much of it “disingenuous.”

“Many organizations are not interested in real change,” Metzler, the ​​president and CEO of FHW and Associates, a global consulting firm, said. “They are looking at diversity as a numbers game. Many executives ask me privately, ‘How many Black people do I have to have?’

“So, what they essentially want to do is bring in people who look different from them, but not necessarily people who think different from them. They want them to look different but just say, ‘Yeah, OK,’ to issues that need to be addressed.”

Kevin Clayton, the vice president of diversity, inclusion and community engagement for the Cleveland Cavaliers, has worked in the DEI arena for more than 30 years. Clayton said he appreciated, after Floyd’s murder, that companies acknowledged a need to “look inside their houses.”

“But companies started plucking individuals from other jobs — marketing or sales or operations — and because they were a person of color, it was like, ‘Hey, you’re the D&I officer,’” Clayton said. “So they put people in these positions with no experience in DEI and call them diversity officers. And they give them no resources. And it’s almost like, ‘OK. We have one. Let’s check that box.’"

Hill was not a check-the-box candidate. He has been a diversity executive for more than 20 years, including at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He expected Houston to be his next stop after running his DEI consulting firm, JBrady5, for the past two years. The fact that the opportunity was pulled, DEI specialists said, speaks to numerous issues.

“This is a case study of an organization needing what Joseph Hill would have provided them, but not embracing it,” said Fred Hobby, when asked about Hill. Hobby is a retired DEI professional who served for a decade as president of the Institute for Diversity and Health at the American Hospital Association. Hobby has known Hill for many years; Hill shared his story with Hobby.

Hill said his troubles began during his visit to find a new home in August. The real estate agent the company contracted, a white man, shared with Hill “unconscious racial biases,” he said, like pointing out a Black-owned clothing store, saying, “One of those stores over there is owned by a rapper; I don’t know those guys.”

Hill said he felt slighted when the agent identified a public golf course as “someplace where you would play,” with the implication that Hill could not play at a private club.

Another day, when Hill arrived to begin a home search in a Porsche SUV, Hill recalled the agent saying, “That’s a nice rental car you have there.” Hill did not respond. Rather, he shared the “microaggressions” — slights that communicate negative attitudes toward marginalized people — with Knowles, Memorial Hermann’s human resources vice president.

“I felt obligated to do so because he was representing the company I, ostensibly, was working for,” Hill said. “It was the epitome of the job I was hired to do.”

He outlined his concerns to Knowles and summarized it in a subsequent email, obtained by NBC News, writing: “The experience crystalizes why the Chief, Equity Diversion and Inclusion Officer role is important for Memorial Hermann. Today, many companies are fraught with microaggressions that are unintentional or intentional that alienate employees. Memorial Hermann has an opportunity to truly leverage equity, diversity and inclusion to engage workforce, enhance the brand and increase positive patient outcomes.”

Hill said he thought nothing more of it after receiving an email on Aug. 26 from Knowles that said she was “sorry that the experience . . . wasn’t what we strive to provide during the onboarding experience.”

Hill returned to Atlanta excited about moving to Houston for his new job. Then the fateful email came.

He said he was disappointed that there was no attempt by Memorial Hermann to communicate its concerns before rescinding the offer. If there had been a conversation, he said they would have learned, for one, that the Porsche SUV the real estate agent acknowledged and the company cited as a reason to rescind the offer was Hill’s car — not a rental. Additionally, “any comment or question I presented was done in good faith, with the best intentions for Memorial Hermann,” Hill said.

He said he did not complain about the relocation budget and his inquiry about potentially hiring staff was “not out of bounds” but a common ask among executives starting at a new company.

As for Hill being “too sensitive on race issues,” Metzler said, referring to the points Hill made about the agent’s microaggressions: “When your incoming chief diversity officer tells you that these are issues and your response is that he’s ‘too sensitive to racial issues’ ... how low can you go? His job is to come in and point out those issues.

“Also, for a job like that, he spent a lot of time in that search and interview process. In offering him the job, you determined that he was a good fit. They are being disingenuous. It is simply ridiculous — but these are the things that companies keep doing.”

Hill is exploring legal options. “Because this is bigger than me,” he said. “This is about doing the right thing, and the right thing in this case also is hoping other companies take this position of DEI seriously to make substantive changes and not just as a spot to fill for appearances’ sake. That’s not helping the long-standing issues of lack of diversity or creating a safe, comfortable workspace for all employees.”

Memorial Hermann’s statement also said: “Sometimes, during the hiring or onboarding process, circumstances can change that may lead to an offer of employment being rescinded. Out of respect for all individuals involved, it is Memorial Hermann’s practice not to discuss personnel matters publicly.

“Memorial Hermann remains committed to its EDI journey, including hiring a Chief EDI Officer. With this individual leading the charge, Memorial Hermann will continue to be the leading employer and healthcare provider of choice for all people and effect real change that will improve the health of our communities.”

Metzler wrote an article that critiqued the DEI initiatives of companies in 2013. He also wrote the article “10 Reasons Why Diversity Efforts Fail.”

“That was eight years ago, and very little has changed,” he said, “even with all these companies saying last year, ‘We are 100 percent in on diversity.’ And one key reason it hasn’t changed is cases like this one, where an experienced diversity officer is giving you outstanding information to help your organization, and suddenly he’s ‘no longer a fit.’ Until the commitment is genuine to make change, nothing will change. And right now the commitment is not genuine.”

Hill’s case underscores an urgency for companies to take inclusion efforts seriously, Hobby said.

“Those who are doing the hiring have forgotten that DEI officers are hired to be a conscience, to be a guide, to be a mentor to the organization, to help it transition from a not very inclusive organization to an inclusive organization,” Hobby said. “Now, they have engaged in more window dressing as a way of socially keeping up with the Joneses, more so than focusing on providing, in the cases of hospitals, better quality health care for minority patients and a better working environment for minority employees.”

CLARIFICATION (Nov. 2, 2021, 3:10 p.m. ET): This article has been updated to clarify the attribution of Hill’s account of why the job offer was revoked, which was described to NBC News by Hill. It also now includes a statement provided by an attorney for the hospital after the article’s original publication.

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