Brian Flores, the NFL and the Fight Against Workplace Racism

Global HR

​Brian Flores was between jobs.

In late January, the former NFL coach, who had recently been fired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins despite leading his team to more wins than losses in 2021, was set to interview for the vacant head coaching position with the New York Giants.

Then he received a text from New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick. Two days before the interview, Belichick mistakenly congratulated Flores on attaining the Giants’ job. Belichick had intended to send the message to another coach, Brian Daboll, who the Giants eventually hired.

The exchange made Flores realize he was interviewing for a position that was theoretically already filled.

“[I experienced] a range of emotions—humiliation, disbelief, anger,” Flores told
CBS News. “I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am in football, to become a head coach; … to go on with what felt like a sham interview, I was hurt.”

Flores has sued the NFL for alleged racial discrimination in the hiring process and in his firing by the Dolphins. The NFL has long been criticized for racial discrimination and a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in executive positions, and evidence suggests that, in this respect, the league isn’t much different from other U.S. workplaces.

The Problem with the Rooney Rule

Why did this happen to Flores? Experts point to the Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule is an NFL policy requiring teams to interview at least two minority candidates for vacant head coaching positions. Since its adoption in 2003, many say the rule has been ineffective and feeds into racial discrimination as some teams interview minority candidates only because of the requirement.

Between 2012 and 2021, NFL teams hired 82 white head coaches and general managers but only 17 people of color for those positions, according to the league’s
2021 Diversity and Inclusion Report. During that span, 168 white men and 51 people of color were hired into offensive or defense coordinator positions.

“The Rooney Rule is ineffective,” said Nzinga Shaw, managing director and chief inclusion & diversity officer at the talent firm ZRG Partners in Atlanta. “In practice, it has become a policy that is not being accomplished in earnest and is oftentimes circumvented without any accountability to the dissidents.”

Shaw, who once served as an HR executive for the NFL and a member of the league’s Diversity Council, said the rule began with good intentions. However, no hiring quota or preference is given to underrepresented candidates to get the job. The policy was conceptualized to ensure fairness but has evolved into a check-the-box activity, with little to no consequences for breaking the rules.

The league can fine teams who don’t abide by the rule, but punishments are rare. N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law with the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington D.C., believes the Rooney Rule could work—if implemented correctly.

“Individual clubs have failed to implement [the rule] with fidelity, have engaged in sham interviews, and the NFL has not penalized clubs,” Duru said. “It makes the league look like it doesn’t care about the rule. They need to start penalizing clubs [more harshly] for breaking the rules.”

Discrimination Isn’t Just an NFL Problem

The NFL’s implicit biases and racial disparities reflect those within corporate America.

Four-hundred and thirty, or 86 percent, of chief executive officers at
Fortune 500 companies in 2021 were white men, according to
data provided exclusively to the Society for Human Resource Management. Thirty-four CEOs were white women, while an additional 15 were of Asian descent. Two were Black men, and two were Black women. Seventeen Latino men made the list. No CEOs were Latina.

SHRM research found that barriers to DE&I in executive positions include identity bias, assembling networking events based on connections, and recruiting from marquee colleges where money and connections help gain entry.

“As America has moved toward becoming a more racially conscious nation, we clearly haven’t made much headway in executive suites or, as a result, entry- to midlevel positions,” said Angelica Geter, chief strategy officer for the Black Women’s Health Imperative in Atlanta. “Hiring discrimination against Black Americans in particular has not improved over the past three decades.”

Employers nationwide have made public commitments and launched anti-bias training in the hiring process. However, Geter said, the issue lies in enforcement and consequences. Employers must institute meaningful sanctions against those hiring managers who continue to perpetuate biases. And they should leverage analytical tools to conduct periodic progress checks to help companies stay accountable.

“It’s easy to claim that DE&I initiatives are working without having the evidence to back that up, especially if the evidence isn’t delineated by race and gender,” Geter added. “[Analytical tools] can ensure companies are accurately tracking their progress.”

Shaw said creating a path forward and sustaining lasting change requires businesses to recognize socioeconomic challenges facing underrepresented communities, including implicit bias.

“Building workplaces of inclusion and equity requires each board member, executive and employee to examine their own biases and to question unconscious assumptions about others,” Shaw said. “This is uncomfortable, painful even, but necessary.”

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