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October 8, 2014 12:07 pm

Businesses should adopt US football’s Rooney Rule

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Companies do not have to be racist or sexist to end up with white men but may just be playing safe
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Antwon Blake (41) can't come up with a the interception ahead of Carolina Panthers wide receiver Marcus Lucas (83) in the first quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)©AP

American football is one of the least successful US exports – most of the rest of us have no interest in it. But English football, or soccer, the most successful sporting export ever, is arguing over whether to adopt one bit of American football – its Rooney Rule.

The rule is named after Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He headed a committee that, in 2002, recommended that the US National Football League require teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach vacancies.

The Rooney Rule, as recounted in a useful history in the New York University Law Review, was a response to threatened legal action over the gap between the large number of African American football players and the small number of black coaches.

English football today has a similar disparity. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, 25 per cent of the players are black, as are 18 per cent of those attending coaching courses. Yet there are only two black or mixed-race managers in the 92 clubs in the top four English leagues.

Paul Ince, a black former player and manager at the highest level, currently without a job, is among those, with the support of the PFA, pressing for English football to adopt the Rooney Rule.

The rule is seen in the US as having been successful. Attempts elsewhere to promote previously unregarded groups have been successful too, including Norway’s 2003 law requiring listed companies to ensure their boards are at least 40 per cent female.

Norway’s quota law has since been followed by other European countries, including France and Italy. The UK has not gone for the coercive approach, instead setting a voluntary target: FTSE 100 companies should ensure that at least a quarter of their board members are women, a goal that is expected to be met next year.

There have always been objections to these initiatives: that they are tokenistic, that they are unfair on those who do not belong to the group being promoted, that they lead to the appointment of people who are not best-suited to the job.

Even some of those these moves are intended to help take this view. “Regardless of intent, quotas by their nature are discriminatory,” Sue Liburd, managing director of Sage Blue, a talent management consultancy, told the Financial Times this year when asked about female board quotas.

The quotas, which are usually filled by non-executive members, have also done little to increase the proportion of top women managers.

Keith Curle, one of the two ethnic minority English football managers, has expressed scepticism about importing the Rooney Rule. “If you said that for every job vacancy . . . you had to have one non-white manager available for interview, is there going to be a realistic chance of them getting every job? Or are they just going to be there to tick a box? I don’t see the point if you’re only going to be there so someone can tick a box,” he told the Guardian.

Sham interviews can be a problem. The law review article cited above, which is sympathetic to the Rooney Rule, says these have happened in the US, when teams, having set out to hire a particular white head coach, have gone through the motions of interviewing a black one.

I don’t know whether the Rooney Rule would change the complexion of English football management. The top teams are desperate for success and regularly fire their managers, scouring the world for the biggest names.

It does strike me, though, that the rule would work in business. Among the affirmative action programmes, this seems a particularly fair one.

It is not a quota system; it is about who companies interview, not who they appoint. It does not stop organisations opting for the best qualified candidate; it just extends the range of candidates.

Companies do not have to be racist or sexist to end up with white men. They may just be playing safe, sticking with those they already know or are known to people they know.

Insisting every shortlist contains a woman, or someone from an ethnic minority, or whatever absence there is in an organisation, means you are looking more widely, beyond those you are comfortable with.

Companies will get to meet, in Rooney Rule candidates, people they might not otherwise have met. They could be better qualified than those they had in mind.
Twitter: @Skapinker

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