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What the NFL’s Rooney Rule Teaches Us About Diversity in Hiring

Jose Triana

February 8, 2022

What the NFL’s Rooney Rule Teaches Us About Diversity in Hiring

Brian Flores, former head coach for the Miami Dolphins, was fired after three seasons. While there is plenty of speculation as to why this happened, it quickly led to a lawsuit that is now calling into question the NFL’s diversity efforts. Many have been quick to point out that the Rooney Rule has helped improve diversity among the higher-level coaching and front office staff, however, there are those, including Flores, who feel that it has failed to do its job. 

What is the Rooney Rule?

The NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee was established to address the “historically low number of minorities in head coaching positions.” The Rooney Rule, which was named after then-chairman Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was established in 2003 and required any team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one diverse candidate. 

Over the years, the rule has expanded to increase diversity, with some changes including:

  • Expansion to include offensive and defensive coordinator roles
  • Addition of general managers and equivalent front-office roles
  • Requiring teams to interview two minority candidates for open head coaching positions and one minority candidate for coordinator jobs
  • Requirement to interview at least one minority/female candidate for senior executive roles

The Rooney Rule’s Impact

After the 2012 season, the NFL started working with outside researchers to measure the impact of its diversity efforts. These results are published annually and show that there have been improvements with diverse hiring. 

According to the NFL’s 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Report, between Feb. 3, 2022 and Feb. 7, 2021 there were 41 head coaches, coordinators, and general managers hired in the NFL. Of that number, only 14 were men of color, an increase from the 2019-20 cycle when only seven men of color were hired from a pool of 31 positions. 

The Challenges the Rule Faces

In his interview with CBS Mornings days after submitting his lawsuit, Flores said, “The Rooney Rule is intended to give minorities an opportunity to sit down in front of ownership. But I think what it's turned into is an instance where guys are just checking a box.”

Related: Empowering diversity is more than just checking boxes
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Unfortunately, his speculation stems from experience. Days before his interview for the head coaching job for the New York Giants, Bill Belichick, head coach for the New England Patriots, congratulated Flores on being the top choice. 

The problem? 

Those text messages were meant for Brian Daboll who would later be named the Giant's new head coach. This led to speculation that Flores was not actually being considered but was rather scheduled simply to fulfill the Rooney Rule requirements. 

3 Strategies for Improving Diversity in Hiring 

As the NFL faces its own DEI reckoning, it’s important to note these problems can affect organizations and associations at any level. While many associations have worked to improve their diversity efforts and create allyship among staffers, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Here are three ways to improve diversity in hiring and avoid simply checking the boxes. 

1. Acknowledge Bias

Whether we realize it or not, we all have some bias that can impact the way we evaluate talent and hire within our associations. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan outlines affinity bias, which is when we favor someone because of their similarity to us, as one of the biggest obstacles when hiring. 

“This often means referring or selecting a candidate who shares our same race or gender, or who went to the same school, speaks the same language, or reminds us of our younger selves,” she says. 

This is why we have to be purposeful when hiring. Some strategies to remove bias include: 

  • Check your language: While it may seem like a subtle issue, the words we use in a job description could be marginalizing talent. According to Forbes, “coded language like ‘energetic’ can deter older candidates, just as phrases associated with masculinity can deter women.” 
  • Standardize your interviews: Structure can be a great way to remove bias and reinforce continuity. Be sure to have set interview questions, a consistent rubric and an organized structure that can be duplicated with every interview. The US Office of Personnel Management has free resources that many organizations, including Google, uses for their hiring process. 
  • Opt for blind evaluations: When hiring, information like race, age or gender can impact talent evaluation. One method Spark Hire suggests is blind hiring. “Recruiters use software and browser extensions that blur images and remove the potentially biased information from candidate’s profiles and CVs.”

3. Evaluate the Hiring Team  

One of the four cornerstones for diversity in hiring as outlined by Dr. Erin L Thomas, the vice-president of diversity, inclusion and belonging and talent acquisition at Upwork, is focusing on coordination from your recruiting team. They should be a diverse group of people who are focused on finding the best fit for your organization. 

Factors like qualities, experience and the structure of the role should all be clear well before your team starts looking at potential candidates. Additionally, your team should be open enough to hold each other accountable when it comes to diversity and candidate evaluation. 

An easy way to do this is by taking detailed notes and evaluating each other's work as candidates move through the hiring process. 

3. Create a Pipeline Within Your Organization

One of the more interesting points in the 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Report, is the difficulty candidates of color are facing when trying to break into the head coaching pipeline. Since 2012, 49 of the 62 head coaches hired were previously offensive or defensive coordinators. 

However, those roles are often a barrier for coaches of color. Only five of the 31 NFL offensive coordinators are men of color, and the 13 recently-hired offensive coordinators have recently held that position for another NFL team. 

In other words, men of color rarely have the opportunity to earn that role, yet it's one of the most common tracks to a head coaching position. 

At the association level, that can mean establishing a mentorship program or working to empower your staffers through apprenticeship. Not only does this help improve the skills of your staffers, but also it creates a pathway to leadership that can easily be adjusted to allow for more diverse candidates. 

Related: Achieving Success With Apprenticeship in the Modern Workplace
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Diversity in Hiring Takes Work

As the NFL is seeing right now, diversity, equity and inclusion take work and quick rules that can easily be circumvented may not be enough. One great way to start on the right path is by addressing diversity in hiring. 

Not only does this allow you to choose the best candidates for the job without bias, but also it works to improve the culture in your organization. It’s also critical to begin measuring your inclusion efforts and working within your organization to assess how your staff feels about your efforts too.

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Jose Triana

Jose Triana joined the Sidecar team as the Content Manager in 2021. He is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.

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