The simple, but meaningful, interview question this anti-racist company asks job applicants

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In recent weeks, as protests against systemic racism gripped the world's attention, companies large and small made their own statements against racial inequity and, in some cases, pledged to do the work of being anti-racist employers. For many leaders, this may be the first time they've actively announced intentions to root out existing racism and oppression in the workplace.

But leaders at Fractured Atlas, an organization that supports artists, formally changed the company values statement five years ago when they committed to being anti-racist and anti-oppressive throughout their operations.

The executive leadership team at the time consisted of all White men and recognized that, while they consistently set goals around hiring and promoting a diverse workforce, they consistently failed to meet their own targets. Through a series of workshops and discussions, they realized their ideas of building a great place to work catered specifically to White male workers like them.

"Some great places to work are still racist," Tim Cynova, the company's chief operating officer, tells CNBC Make It.

After directly acknowledging the need to do more, the organization concluded that they wanted to actively promote being anti-racist and anti-oppressive through their entire business model and workplace culture, which meant getting everyone from executive leaders to employees to new hires committed to working according to these values.

As Lauren Ruffin, Fractured Atlas's chief external relations officer, puts it, anti-racism is "not just a policy. It's a set of principles we measure every aspect of our work against."

The team has found that asking one key question can be a good gauge of whether a prospective hire is willing to do the work of being anti-racist and anti-oppressive in the workplace.

The anti-racist job interview question

Throughout its website, Fractured Atlas notes the company's ongoing work of making sure its employee base and the artists in their membership accurately reflect the diversity of the arts community and society as a whole. Additionally, every job description includes the company's value statement of anti-racism and anti-oppression.

Applicants should be prepared to have a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion by the time they get to an interview, says Ruffin. That's why, often during the initial phone screen, job candidates will be asked: "Without using the word 'different,' what's your definition of diversity?"

"It's such a simple question," Ruffin says, though "as a Black queer woman who's hiring, I'm always astounded by the responses I get." 

Ruffin and Cynova explain that when they ask the diversity question, they're really trying to gauge whether the candidate has done proper research on the company, its values and how it shows up in their work. Sometimes, the candidate will push back and say they're asking the wrong question about diversity, which Cynova says could actually be a sign of a good culture fit. For example, instead of simply defining diversity, the candidate may instead want to discuss how diversity is actively suppressed through existing social systems, and the work it takes to actively promote diversity across race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability.

A candidate who gives a vague answer or a response filled with "alphabet soup" probably hasn't done their research on the company or doesn't have a grasp of diversity as a concept, Ruffin says.

Now and then, even if a candidate gives a weak answer but still shows promise as an employee in general, they'll advance to second-round interviews.

In these more formal conversations, hiring managers will ask how the candidate has promoted equity, sensitivity and inclusion through their previous work experiences. If they still can't discuss how they've worked to break down systems of oppression or even acknowledge its existence, whether through their job history or in their own personal lives, Cynova says it's usually a sign of a bad culture fit.

What the question reveals about employers and job seekers 

Employers may be reticent to bring up racial inequity in the workplace because it requires the other party to acknowledge its very existence and how they benefit from the disadvantages of others, which can be uncomfortable.

When an employer starts talking about racism and oppression in the workplace, Cynova says, they have "changed the unwritten employer-employee contract. People will say, 'I signed up to work for an innovative arts organization, and now they're requiring mandatory meetings to talk about racism and White fragility.'"

This could cause job seekers to not apply, and it can make existing employees feel like they're being asked to take on values in the workplace that they don't personally feel are right.

The risk is that , "you'll lose employees, donors and board members," Cynova says, "but you were already losing amazing people doing the work who want to see those [equity] efforts and want to be a part of that."

"That attrition of staff leaving is probably good attrition," Ruffin adds. "Someone who can't step out of their own shoes to empathize with others is probably a bad colleague."

What job seekers can ask hiring managers

Ruffin and Cynova also encourage that job candidates ask their prospective employer questions about their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Ask what they're doing beyond making a statement against systemic racism. For example, are they aware of equity gaps among employees in their workforce, whether that's though pay discrepancies or a lack of Black leaders in the C-suite, and how are they actively working to eliminate them?

The question may feel uncomfortable bring up, though Ruffin argues that the response can tell you how the company truly feels about its employees and their futures.

"You can't put your career in the hands of people who haven't done the work of recognizing power, oppression and privilege," Ruffin says.

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