Millennial and Gen Z professionals are avoiding companies without a diverse workforce, clear promotion traffic and a commitment to confronting systemic racism in their ranks
Last summer, Arionne Lloyd went job hunting with a fresh set of priorities. For three years, she had been one of the few Black people in the sales department at a national movie theater chain. It wasn’t always a good feeling. Movies headlined by Black actors or a Black director were often pigeonholed as “Black” entertainment, and Lloyd was frequently the sole voice advocating for a wider marketing campaign.
When she had applied to the job in her mid-20s, she hadn’t asked about diversity. “It was about getting the role and getting the paycheck,” said Lloyd.
But this summer changed everything. “I can’t really put into words how George Floyd and Black Lives Matter greatly, greatly affected me,” Lloyd said. “When it came to entering the workforce, I wanted to make my next move as meaningful as possible.”
Lloyd knew the pandemic and recession might limit her options, but she remained uncompromising. When she found a company that looked appealing, she checked for a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer on staff or an emphasis on DEI programming for employees. She looked for certification from the Society for Human Resource Management, which emphasizes unconscious-bias training.
And she pored over Glassdoor, Indeed and LinkedIn, to ensure that employees of color hadn’t posted negative reviews in the last 12 months. It was a lot of work, but it paid off. In November, she was offered a sales associate role with Bloomerang, an Indianapolis-based software company that helps nonprofits fundraise.
She says the company not only decided to seek qualified and diverse employees but also tries to promote the importance of DEI in the nonprofit sector as a whole.
Over the past decade, highly educated young professionals have increasingly prioritized personal values in deciding where to work, whether it’s a commitment to sustainability, philanthropy or social impact.
It’s why so many companies say their mission is to “change the world.”
But now, millennials such as Lloyd and Generation Z job seekers are setting a higher bar; they want employers to be equally committed to changing themselves.
This includes hiring a more diverse workforce, helping employees of color advance through the ranks, giving them more decision-making power and facilitating uncomfortable conversations about systemic racism. Mission statements about racial justice and prompt responses to current events are also important, but they must be more than set pieces. Young job seekers say they’re attuned to anything that smacks of performance.
“This is a generational shift in the belief that these values are really important and foundational to their experiences as workers,” said Alvin B. Tillery Jr., director of the Center for Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.
“You can say there’s no systemic racism, but millennials and Gen Z don’t believe that. If you’re under 35, you expect these conversations, and if you don’t offer them, you’ll have trouble recruiting.”
Recent data appears to reflect this. According to a September survey from Glassdoor, 76 percent of employees and job seekers said a diverse workforce was important when evaluating companies and job offers. Nearly half of Black and Hispanic employees and job seekers said they had quit a job after witnessing or experiencing discrimination at work. And 37 percent of employees and job seekers said they wouldn’t apply to a company that had negative satisfaction ratings among people of color.
After the last recession, young job seekers were more inclined to take any available job, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor. “The difference now is we’ve spent the last 10 years moving toward a world where companies are much more engaged around issues — not just DEI but culture and employee engagement,” he said. “A lot of trends the pandemic has either accelerated or derailed, and this is a trend that will last through.”
Since 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has asked new graduates to rank the importance of a diverse workforce. That first year, diversity ranked 12th out of 15 options. By the spring of 2020, it had risen to seventh out of 19 options; over 79 percent of respondents called it “very important.” Edwin Koc, director of research at NACE, said employers are starting to recognize this shift.
NACE’s 900 employer members represent every major industry, from manufacturing to finance and beyond. About a quarter are Fortune 1000 companies. After Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May, most of them told NACE they had released statements about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. Koc said many were reexamining their hiring and personnel policies through a DEI lens.
But many companies still don’t prioritize diversity and inclusion, or they lack an action plan, presenting young job seekers with tough choices — especially during a recession.
“First and foremost, students are concerned about finding the job or the internship,” said Norma Guerra Gaier, executive director of Texas Career Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “But right behind it is, how does this fit with who I am and who the organization says they are?”
This conflict is especially acute among first-generation and low-income students. They feel “something is better than nothing, because they’re contributing to their households and families,” said Whitney McDowell-Robinson, director of Career Pathways/Career Services at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson, Miss.
Partly for this reason, career service centers increasingly see themselves as diversity and inclusion gatekeepers. McDowell-Robinson establishes clear expectations with recruiters before sitting down with them. And while she doesn’t withhold opportunities from students, she’s selective about her endorsements.
“We will take your outreach, your opportunities,” she said. “But we are very well aware this may not have been organic, or you’re trying to check a box.” She said if recruiters want college support, they must be open to having “1,000 different uncomfortable conversations” with university staff and students. Tougaloo recently launched an Employer Relations Council whose members have signaled a commitment to such an undertaking.
At UT Austin, Texas Career Engagement is the newest of 16 career centers and specifically designed to facilitate inclusivity and equity in the job search. Employers are asked to share how diversity and inclusion are ingrained into their company mission and their recruiting strategies. Some are then invited to participate in DEI strategy sessions.
Career centers are also encouraging students to be more honest about their needs. They offer workshops on bringing your “authentic self” to work and discussions about wearing natural hair, combating impostor syndrome and accommodating disabilities.
“Nothing is worse than having a great opportunity, and then you get there and don’t stay for more than a couple of months because of the climate,” said McDowell-Robinson.
“Even if it narrows your field, we want you to be successful where you go.”
Career counselors say that even a year ago, students were reluctant to ask hiring managers about diversity and inclusion. They didn’t want to appear difficult or seem to be seeking special treatment. But as the national conversation has shifted, so has student confidence.
“They say you’re interviewing the interviewer,” said Mia Character, 22, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a double major in business administration and media studies. “If the interviewer is turned off by that, that’s a huge flag for me. As a Black woman in the workplace, I want to make sure I’m entering spaces I’m comfortable in."
McDowell-Robinson said employers haven’t shown much resistance to the questions, in part because they know cultural fit increases a hire’s productivity and longevity. Employers also realize that talented job seekers from underrepresented groups have something of an upper hand.
“Every company is looking to increase diversity, especially of Black and Latinx people,” said Netta Jenkins, a DEI executive and consultant. “But companies who are merely performing are having a challenging time sourcing these populations. Well, maybe it’s because these populations have the inside scoop.”
Glassdoor just released employee sentiment ratings and pay data for diversity, equity and inclusion, which are searchable by race/ethnicity, gender identity and LGBTQ+ status. Next month, Jenkins and a co-founder will launch Dipper, a platform for professionals of color to rate and review their companies. It’s an effort to formalize what’s already happening behind the scenes: underrepresented job seekers tracking down current employees before accepting an offer.
If the feedback is, “Nope, save yourself the pain and suffering,” Jenkins said, people move on.
Of course, even when companies try to be receptive, they may not get it right. Casey Wong, 27, who identifies as genderqueer, said the interviewers at their Sacramento-based architecture design firm looked visibly uncomfortable when asked about diversity and inclusion. “You can see the smile disappear, and their face twists a little,” Wong said. “They gave the ‘we want to make sure we’re so inclusive’ Miss America pageant answer.”
Wong took the job because the field was so competitive. Once on board, they helped launch an equity, diversity and inclusion committee, which now leads monthly employee meetings. The company counts these sessions toward professional development hours.
Still, Wong said there’s a long way to go. “When I brought up Black Lives Matter, the head of HR said, ‘Remember Casey to be inclusive,’” they said. Wong felt chided. “I think it was implied that these issues of racism, sexism, and other -isms don’t occur in my industry or at my firm, when we know they do,” they said.
This was precisely why Wong’s sister Erinn, 21, declined to work for a large tech company after interning there, although her supervisors had told her they would like to see her back. “There was such a gap between how they advertised and what goes on behind the scenes,” said Wong, who is DEI director for her business college’s student government. The firm released a statement about equity and inclusion during the summer protests. But before that, when Wong was asked to interview employees for a manager guide on diversity and inclusion, she found many people were “wishy-washy” or considered DEI “preferential treatment.”
She eventually took a job at Adobe. “There’s no perfect company, and I have to accept that,” she said. “I have student loans to pay back.” But during the summer, she said the company demonstrated “a genuine sense of care” about racial justice.
Character, the UC Berkeley graduate, faced a similar quandary when Amazon offered her a job even before she had graduated from college. She had interned there and enjoyed the experience. But she felt that diversity and inclusion efforts were meted out inequitably — the white-collar employees benefited, but the warehouse workers did not.
She took until the night before the deadline to make her decision. “At the end of the day, I had to go with what felt right in my heart,” she said. She turned down the offer.
Months later, she graduated into a pandemic-fueled recession. “I was like, dang, I could have had a job right now,” she said. Her regret was fleeting. “It was a scary moment,” she said. “But I never worried about my future.”