Humans are social creatures, and we like to surround ourselves with the familiar and comfortable. It’s just in our nature. Ever hear the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together?” This old school proverb dates back to the 16th century, but it still rings true today. Essentially, it means that similar people tend to link up and assemble in groups. The sociology theory of homophily follows this same logic, which means “love of the same.”
Company culture is a term that you hear a lot these days. It helps to align everyone in an organization with the mission at hand, but it also tends to promote homophily. This, whether intentional or not, encourages the initiated to keep initiating others like them. And there’s usually not much room for anyone else.
Modern-day human resources departments or “People Operations” — a shift to data-driven HR — are supposed to tackle issues of diversity and inclusion, but in current practice, it’s hard to introduce something that doesn’t fit in with the established vision of an organization.
You can chalk this up to something like unconscious bias (the automatic judgement/assessment of people and things due to an individual’s background, experiences, etc.) during the hiring process, but anyway you dice it, the candidate on the other side of the interviewing desk is left in the dark. What’s "whack" is that these businesses may be losing out on great talent while leaving millions of black and brown youth without any way into the light.
I know it's uncomfortable for the workforce development system to speak of racism. However, old wounds are reopening faster than some southern states during the Pandemic. The lacerations from decades of injustices that many thought were healing are now oozing with a purulent discharge mixed of anger and intolerance. Workforce development system cannot remain quiet while corporations drop #Black Lives Matter support statements faster than Beyonce drops hits. Silence is not an option and inaction is inexcusable.
Workforce development systems have to reexamine a few things. Those who said the workforce doesn't see color and thought racism was dying out post-racial era are now confronted with the bitter pill of truth. Or worse, they choose to continue down the path of blissful ignorance.
Discrimination in the workplace has always been a problem, but it’s nearly impossible to prove. Workforce program “wisdom” asserts that discrimination has little effect these days and the last vestiges of it can be addressed by skill development and credentialing. However, anecdotal evidence paints a different picture. Many of us have seen it in action, either outright or in a subtler form (overt or covert discrimination), but does that mean it’s the leading cause for economic failure for black and brown youth?
In the case of race, one of the reasons why it’s so hard to measure racism stems from phenomenon such as statistical discrimination. In this practice, employers utilize characteristics of the group(s) that an individual belongs to instead of measuring that person’s actual personal characteristics to come to a conclusion. This can be seen legally implemented in the insurance industry to assign values to old people, for example, but it certainly should not have a place in modern workforce management.
Whether it’s more so one or the other, homophily and racism share the knack for bolstering segregated flocks within the labor market, which in turn discourages minorities and the disconnected from seeking out training opportunities that can't possible deliver what they promise. Once again, 4.5 million disconnected youth and less than 300,000 training slots - and there still is a recruitment problem?
The fact is, the issue of whether homophily or racism is the root cause of economic inequality is not cut and dried. Without making broad generalizations or oversimplifying things, I think we all can agree that there are major issues that need to be addressed. When it comes to inclusion and diversity, businesses still have a long way to go and the workforce system that serves them has a long way to go too.
So, should young adults who don’t fit the mold give up? No! Some will say that youth must succumb to at least a certain amount of assimilation to get ahead in this world, which may be inevitable, but it certainly isn’t the only tactic available. Work-ethic, social skills and likability training has it place but can we take it to the demand side - just sayin?
The idea that I’m proposing is to look at these exclusive flocks (whether formed by unconscious bias, statistical discrimination or otherwise) not as dead ends but as hubs of opportunity.
Instead of being stuck in isolation, we can help young people connect to these points. How do we do this? By linking and hopping via social capital. Social capital provides an effective way to jump great distances in social space, ultimately opening doors to economic opportunity that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Social capital is a powerful resource — one that can mend the wings of the fallen and give them flight again — but the reality is, not everyone has equal access to it. For young people, especially disconnected youth, it can mean the difference between getting that first job or ending up in the throes of addiction, crime or worse. We may never be able to fully eradicate inequality in the labor market, but we can make it so that the labor market finds it harder to be unequal. Using the reciprocal power of social capital changes hearts and opportunity for both the giver and receiver. Who is who is up to you to decide.