New hiring practices help UUA live into its values

The UUA Leadership Council is 42 percent people of color in January 2020.

Careful attention to hiring practices has diversified the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association and deepened its commitment to antiracism, antioppression, and multiculturalism.

Image: The UUA Leadership Council is 42 percent people of color in January 2020. Back row, from left: Helene Atwan, Jessica York, Mark Steinwinter, Rob Molla, John Hurley, Andrew McGeorge. Front row, from left: the Rev. Sarah Lammert, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, Carey McDonald, Janice Marie Johnson, Taquiena Boston, the Rev. Lauren Smith. (© 2020 Ted Resnikoff)

© 2020 Ted Resnikoff


From the editors: Since the spring of 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been engaged in a wide-ranging and ongoing effort to identify and eradicate white supremacy culture in its institutions and to foster greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in its communities in order to live more fully into Unitarian Universalist values.

Over the next several issues, UU World will be publishing a series of stories about the UUA’s ongoing work toward creating and supporting a more fully antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural Association. This story, the first in the series, focuses on new hiring policies and practices at the UUA that have transformed its staff and leadership.

Last October, at a symposium on Black theology sponsored by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Carey McDonald, executive vice president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, shared exciting news with the Rev. William G. Sinkford: In just over two years, the UUA had more than doubled the number of people of color in top leadership roles, meeting an ambitious diversity goal Sinkford set for the UUA during his ten-week interim co-presidency in the spring of 2017.

Sinkford, the first African American elected as UUA president, had led the association from 2001 to 2009. In his final full year as president, the UUA’s Leadership Council—its senior staff, including the president—was 14 percent people of color; the staff as a whole was just under 14 percent people of color. Eight years later, during the final year of the presidency of Sinkford’s successor, the Rev. Peter Morales, the first Hispanic president of the UUA, people of color made up 20 percent of all employees, but the number of people of color on the Leadership Council had not changed. For an association with a stated commitment to antiracism and multiculturalism, the numbers of people of color, especially in top leadership positions, frustrated and angered some UUs. Critics said the UUA was routinely favoring white ministers when hiring for senior positions, and a denominational crisis over hiring practices erupted in March 2017, three months before the end of Morales’s second term. Morales and two other top officials resigned in April 2017.

Instituting a shared model of leadership it had not used before, the UUA Board of Trustees named three people of color as interim co-presidents—Sinkford, the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, and Dr. Leon Spencer—until a new president could be elected in June 2017. The board also established a Commission on Institutional Change to assess institutional and structural racism in the UUA. The co-presidents announced a hiring freeze until new policies could be set and added two people of color to the Leadership Council: Jessica York, the interim director of Ministries and Faith Development, and Carey McDonald, the UUA’s Outreach director.

Soon the co-presidents announced new hiring goals: at least 40 percent of people in managerial and decision-making positions on the UUA staff should be people of color and/or indigenous people, they said, and, overall, the UUA staff should be 30 percent people of color/indigenous people. While no UUA employees were to be terminated to meet the goals, the policy was to guide all new hires.

At the BLUU symposium in Saint Paul, McDonald told Sinkford that today, through focused and concerted effort to transform UUA culture, the Leadership Council is 42 percent people of color, and the overall staff numbers have risen to 30 percent people of color.

“My response,” says Sinkford, “was to be both impressed and delighted.” Moreover, Sinkford encouraged McDonald to make sure the story got told: in less than three years, the UUA had moved from a particularly low point to a place of celebration—albeit qualified by a clear recognition that there is much work to be done.

As soon as the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray was elected president at the 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans, she set out to put the hiring goals into action—and, more broadly, she says, to change the culture of the UUA in order to live more fully into the values of the faith.

“The interim co-presidents called for bold action in rethinking our hiring practices and setting the vision for a future and a diverse staff,” says Frederick-Gray. “When I was elected, I set about creating the policies and decisions to begin implementing the vision.” One of her first decisions was to appoint McDonald as acting chief operating officer, then as executive vice president. “Once Carey was in place, our first priority was to review and revamp our hiring practices and policies in order to live into that vision of a multiracial, multicultural, diverse leadership team and staff at the UUA.”

Frederick-Gray says systemic change was called for because systemic biases, rather than merely the biases of particular individuals, were perpetuating white supremacy culture in the UUA. The desired culture change was “not just hiring more people of color but looking at our whole hiring procedure to make sure we lived into our values and fostered greater equity and diversity.”

She also appointed Taquiena Boston to a new position on the Leadership Council—Special Advisor to the President for Institutional Inclusion, Equity, and Change—whose role is to bring “expertise, strategic thinking, and resources” to the work of dismantling white supremacy culture, Frederick-Gray says. The creation of Boston’s position, says Sinkford, “is another sign of the seriousness” with which the new president took her charge.

Unitarian Universalists “are called to be radically inclusive as a faith community and antiracist in our practices,” Frederick-Gray says, “so embracing hiring policies that would help us make changes around racial diversity and equity at the UUA was one of the first steps, in order to create the leadership to help us live into the vision.”

It was clear that changes were needed at every step of the hiring process, says McDonald. They found that, with regard to certain aspects of hiring, including job descriptions and the interviewing process, the UUA “needed to catch up” with other nonprofits that were similarly committed to diversifying their staffs, McDonald says.

UUA leaders took a comprehensive look not just at hiring practices but also at compensation packages, job descriptions, and more. They quickly made changes, rewriting every job description to emphasize the UUA’s commitment to antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural values; advertising job openings in places where people of color and other marginalized people would see them; privileging life skills instead of insisting on particular academic degrees; and encouraging people to apply even if they didn’t feel they met the stated qualifications, says Rob Molla, the UUA’s director of Human Resources.

Since 2017, the UUA and Beacon Press have hired sixty new employees; twenty-one of them gather for a photo in December 2019. Of the sixty new staff, 63 percent are people of color.

Since 2017, the UUA and Beacon Press have hired sixty new employees; twenty-one of them gather for a photo in December 2019. Of the sixty new staff, 63 percent are people of color. (© 2019 Christopher L. Walton)

© 2019 Christopher L. Walton

That a commitment to antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural work is now stated in every job description shows applicants that the UUA is serious about the work, a value that is also underscored during job interviews. Being explicit about racial equity and dismantling white supremacy helps “make the positions in the organization attractive to people,” says Boston. “People see the seriousness and they apply.”

Frederick-Gray and her team took a broad look at UUA culture to identify other things that might be privileging white people as job candidates. For example, the UUA had a history of hiring credentialed UU ministers for many jobs, and the Leadership Council tended to be minister-heavy, McDonald says. But it is the skillset—such as management experience—rather than the academic credential that is important, they decided. Today, there are two religious educators who are also people of color on the council: York, who in October 2018 was named as director of Congregational Life, and Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, who in January 2019 was named as co-director of Ministries and Faith Development, a position she shares with the Rev. Sarah Lammert. In the past, ministers filled the top positions in the UUA’s five regions, McDonald says, but of the four new people Frederick-Gray’s administration has named to those positions, only one is a minister, while two are people of color.

Other barriers to a more diverse applicant pool were also eliminated: The UUA allows more people to telecommute, so good candidates aren’t required to move to Boston, and, Molla adds, many Boston-based staff work from their homes one day a week. “How we think about how we do our work has shifted, which supports both our efforts at diversity and inclusion,” he says. For people with certain disabilities, including “hidden disabilities” such as chemical sensitivities, “not having to commute in every day makes a difference.”

These changes have noticeably widened the applicant pool and attracted excellent candidates who in the past may not have known about—or been interested in—a job at the UUA. “We’re really pushing hard to make sure the pool of finalists is diverse,” says Molla.

Further changes were made at other stages of the hiring process. While some staff groups used teams instead of individual managers to review applications and interview candidates, the UUA now requires racially diverse hiring teams for every hire to help reduce individual biases. Teams include people from outside the hiring staff group—sometimes from outside the UUA staff—to broaden the perspective about the skills most needed for a given position.

The UUA is working with the Management Center, which helps social-change organizations build more effective organizations. The Center has led two workshops for UUA managers on hiring with a diversity and inclusion lens, says Molla. Among other things, in order to try to minimize subconscious bias, the Center advised the UUA to be more consistent in its hiring process. They recommended, for example, that finalists receive questions they will be asked ahead of time, so they have time to think about their answers. This way, introverts, who often tend not to prefer thinking on the spot, aren’t disadvantaged compared to extroverts. “We’re looking at as many ways as possible to level the playing field,” Boston says.

In another change, job offers cannot be extended without the approval of McDonald or Molla, “to prevent an end-run around these new processes,” says McDonald. “Managers have really embraced the new hiring approach.”

If the finalist pool isn’t as diverse as hoped, the hiring team will reexamine the job description to see if it needs modifying or whether the salary offered isn’t competitive, says Boston. “We are constantly evaluating” the process to see if it’s having the desired outcome. While this may slow the process, it’s the right approach, she says.

Just eight months after she was elected, Frederick-Gray and her team had these changes in place, and the Human Resources handbook was updated by February 2018 to reflect the new hiring policies and procedures, says Molla.

Boston says these efforts have already made a difference in expanding the pool of applicants. She was part of the hiring team that selected the new International Office director. “Talk about a hard decision!” says Boston, who notes that all of the finalists were people of color with different racial, ethnic, and gender identities and sexual orientations. “They were all just rock stars.” The team chose the Rev. Alicia Forde, who had been serving as the UUA’s Professional Development director.

Since the start of Frederick-Gray’s presidency, the UUA and its independent publishing house Beacon Press have filled sixty positions. Thirty-seven of those new employees (or 63 percent) are counted as Hispanic or people of color by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Molla.

Each new hire is “an opportunity to increase our diversity in every possible way,” says Molla, from learning and thinking styles to various disabilities, religious backgrounds, racial and gender identification, and sexual orientation.

UUA leaders emphasize that there is no policy to hire only people of color, which in fact would be illegal. Rather, by broadening the pool of candidates, “We’ve always been able to hire the best applicants, and we have met our diversity goals,” Frederick-Gray says.

Moreover, McDonald emphasizes that there is no tension between hiring qualified people and meeting diversity targets. Indeed, he says, “We cannot do our job without a diverse and skilled staff. I want to be really clear that we put qualifications at the center of hiring and we are unwilling to engage in tokenism here. It sets people up for failure, and it’s unethical.” But highlighting the UUA’s values and culture change has changed who wants to work there and “actually encouraged a more diverse” group of applicants, McDonald says.

“There are so many ways in which inequitable outcomes are written into procedures and job qualifications that appear to be race neutral or identity neutral, but in fact continue to perpetuate inequitable outcomes when it comes to hiring,” says Frederick-Gray.

“One way we’re creating more equitable outcomes,” says Frederick-Gray, who takes care to emphasize the word more, is by focusing on skills rather than educational degrees, and emphasizing the value of lived experience in marginalized communities. Skills in antiracism and multicultural work are key qualifications for the work, she notes.

Frederick-Gray and McDonald emphasize that hiring policies are only one part of the work to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among other things, the association is going to re-examine its job classifications to make statistics around diversity easier to track over time. And as hiring policies are improved, it’s critical to support staff of color and staff from other marginalized groups so that they—and the association—can grow and succeed.

The UUA now has support groups for staff of color, LGBTQ employees, and transgender and nonbinary employees. A cross-departmental “jedi team” works with Boston to lead recurring learning opportunities for staff on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. One of the jedi team’s projects is a staff survey about workplace culture.

“We’re not celebrating and turning off the lights and going home,” says Boston. “We’ve done the recruitment, done the hires, now it’s about how do we make sure people have what they need in order to succeed.”

Sinkford adds, “The achievement of a work force that looks more like the world we minister to is a very important step—but it’s only a first step.”

While the numbers are encouraging, Molla warns that focusing on them too heavily may be misleading. “Stats are only part of the story,” he says. “Culture change is so much more than that.” While numbers may fluctuate in any one year, “the important thing is to look at where we are long-term, and where our staff will be five, ten, twenty years out.” That’s where retention and support of staff, especially staff of color and employees from other marginalized groups, is equally important, he and others note.

Frederick-Gray says, “I feel really proud and excited for the impact that the changes we have made at the UUA have fostered among the diversity of the UUA staff. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done so far and there’s more work to be done.”