Dear Recruiters, It’s Time to Check Your Unconscious Bias

For industry-wide progress in DEI, brands must revisit how talent is being approached

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I was recently contacted by a recruiter and to say the conversation didn’t go well is an understatement. From the tone as he delivered his opening line, I knew this conversation was unlikely to be a fruitful one. 

“How would you like to work at a general market agency?”

If he knew me, he’d know I don’t look at opportunities because they’re multicultural or general market—I look for agencies with good people who do good work, so I told him, “It all depends on the agency.” I proceeded to share what I’d been up to in the five years since our last contact (he hadn’t bothered to check) and highlighted what I was most proud to be a part of.

I mentioned that I respected the people I work with and that it had been a good experience so far. We talked about my boss, a multicultural thought leader whom the recruiter has solicited for work in the past. And I emphasized I was proud of the ground we’ve gained in earning recognition from the industry at large for the caliber of our thinking and creativity—all of which I’d put up against any of the big “general market” agencies. 

The opportunity he then pitched was at a lower title level at an agency with regional clients. That part didn’t bother me, as I know that opportunities can be found in any organization. What did initially shock and then infuriate me was what he said next: “Excuse me for saying this but this could be your chance to escape the Hispanic advertising ghetto and move on to general market.” 

While still reeling from the fact that he actually said “Hispanic advertising ghetto,” I managed to reply “that alone is not compelling to me.” I expanded by mentioning the great work being done by Latin American creative talent worldwide. Leaving alma’s outstanding talent bench aside, I challenged him to consider agencies doing some of the best work right now: agencies like We Believers, Gut and DAVID, which are all led by Latino talent and staffed by multicultural employees. 

His persuasive comeback? “Well, I’ll keep you in mind for evp positions in multicultural.” 

Hearing this stunned me. It was clear he saw me and my current role at a leading Hispanic-led agency as less than. He had completely missed the point and became frustrated with the conversation, which then ended abruptly. And the way he delivered his last comment seemed like he was trying to put me in my place—a lower place. 

Making everything worse—he is known to regularly place diverse talent. The exchange sparked questions. Is it possible this person reflects a pervasive mindset that I somehow thought was closer to extinction? Even after #metoo, even after BLM, even after the latest Census?

Perception vs. reality

As a white-presenting Cuban American woman who grew up middle class, I never thought of myself as marginalized. I’d dealt with both sides of the coin: too American for some Latino-led agencies, too Latina for white-led agencies. Having toggled between both, I realized with perfect clarity that this older white male may be a mirror image of how talent at multicultural agencies are still perceived—that we are somehow relegated to our situation, anxious to find some way out of a horrible professional plight. 

I grounded myself for a minute and took stock of where I am today: Does a “Hispanic Advertising Ghetto” agency win Golds at the Effies? Does it consistently win Lions at Cannes?

Does it win nearly 20 pieces of business in just over a year from brands who fully realize multicultural is mainstream? Does it experience 12 straight years of growth while others close shop? The answer is a resounding “no” on all counts. 

Still, I couldn’t shake the thought that this attitude likely still lives on in the minds of many in the industry. And when recruiters like him reach out to starry-eyed Hispanic talent, this is the carrot they dangle—perpetuating the notion that multicultural work is something to leave behind, to graduate from. To be ashamed of. 

Recruiters are extensions of brands

This entire situation has been a stark reminder that racism and bigotry continue in our industry. This belief that segment agencies are somehow ”less than” is archaic yet that a top recruiter shares the belief proves it’s an endemic one, all while our industry claims great moral progress under the banner of DEI. If our collective aim is for industry-wide progress in DEI, we should revisit our approach to absolutely everything including recruitment.

To start, here are a few simple guidelines for recruiters:

  • Treat multicultural talent with the same respect and interest you would any other talent by doing your homework. It’s easy to check LinkedIn profiles.
  • Check your level of unconscious bias. There will be no good outcome when engaging with talent from a multicultural agency if you believe the work that they do there is “less than” experience, compared with talent from other agencies. If that’s what you really think, despite your best efforts, your bias will inevitably show up.
  • Listen. It’s the first step in every successful discussion. And even worse in the case of recruiters, not listening may leave the impression that you see talent as a wholesale commodity—less than a person.

As for agencies that use outside recruiters, walking the talk on DEI applies here too. These recruiters are an extension of your brand, providing the first impressions of your organization on an interpersonal level. 

Think twice about using someone who isn’t well versed on your position on DEI and multicultural recruitment.  And don’t work with a recruiter whose strategy is to diminish the current role and achievements of potential recruits to aggrandize the opportunity they’re offering.

Making these changes is part of accepting the reality that every day it’ll get harder to tell multicultural and general-market agencies apart. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to see the irony at play that multicultural agencies are treated as prime hunting grounds for talent.

And alma, for its part, will continue to gain ground with big modern culture work that drives business for clients, elevates the cultural conversation and, most important, obliterates the baseless concept of a Hispanic Advertising Ghetto once and for all.