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Stella Leaburn

Stella Leaburn

Brand and Image Consultant

Read more about Stella Leaburn

If you want to prove your allyship, take a walk with me.

Stella Leaburn talks about how references can be a way for business leaders to deconstruct bias and support their minority hires.

I’ve got an HR niche I want to explore – I want to talk about references/testimonials.

Specifically, I want to talk about equality of references or testimonials.

I want to talk about how references are a small yet mighty show of indelible support for professionals who are overlooked, forgotten and underrepresented.

I want to talk about the harsh reality of allyship in work, and that many leaders who promote their allyship don’t pen to paper and put their name on the line.

I also want to talk about some challenging theories about how and why we do business with the people we do business with, and how references can be a major, clear sign of bias-busting support from business leaders to their minority hires.

Doing the work

It might seem like references are small-fry support when compared to something as big as donating to charities or marching for equality. We should be doing all those things. We should never stop turning up and doing everything we can to right historical wrongs.

But something as simple and as “passive” as giving a reference can be a life-changing active form of allyship because it addresses legacy forms of affinity bias head-on, and it puts your name front and centre of those efforts to smash bias.

Anyone who has ever worked in a professional mono-culture knows that affinity bias is like workplace toxicity made real – cloned ideas, cloned workers, cloned leaders, cloned culture.

While helping talented minority workers with references isn’t the single silver bullet that crushes legacy bias, it’s a powerful tool and should never be overlooked in the fight for more diverse workplaces.

Why references/testimonials?

References/testimonials provide professional framing. They help personalise and contextualise performances and provide details of accountability for work done to date.

They provide leadership-level feedback, which is gold dust for future employers as it provides real-life anecdotes regarding someone’s work. References/testimonials are, just like referrals, incredibly valuable and powerful tools for connecting talent to business leaders.

But considering the legacy issues around CVs and resume analysis – and the rampant, unalloyed bias that affects minority applications and how minority applicants are perceived – references are put into stark relief.

Consider this:

  • There are some insanely depressing studies (as this piece by Manchester University alludes to) where applicants have sent the same CV into a role but had different names at the top. One is an “ethnic” name. The other, a more “traditional Anglo-Saxon” name. The results are, inevitably, disheartening. No guesses as to who gets the greenlight for an interview.
  • Indeed, not much has changed in the last 15 years, with studies done in 2009, 2012, and 2022 that stipulate the same issues, the same discrimination and the same limiting effects of CV name “reading” still plaguing minority candidates or candidates with non-Anglicised names.

But references can provide a CV tonic to this sort of bias.

References/testimonials as delineating weapons of allyship.

Ok, let’s talk basic recruitment 101.

People want to work with like-minded folk. They want to work with people who share the same interests, have the same skills, the same drive for success, and the same want and need to work in the sector they work in.

None of this is bad.

But without active control and hiring consideration, business leaders fall into the habit of cloning their people.

For minority talent, those who are trying to build rapport and careers against that grain of linearity, building a career becomes exponentially harder.

And it cannot be ignored that demography, geography and history have a huge bearing on who enters certain industries. A certain workforce “sameness” is to be expected in certain industries, and it’s something I’ve had mentors and colleagues and friends tell me happens to them too. We all fall into this habit. The trick is noticing it and making efforts to better it.

So how do references help? Simple.

When people who look like you (majority) see that you worked with us (minority), you feel you can trust us and will be more willing to work with us.

This is the power of a reference – it provides context-led support in a profoundly un-confrontational way that is a permanent, positive mark on someone’s career.

Visibility matters. It’s not a metaphor, I mean literally being a visible ally MATTERS.

The future of minority representation and referencing

Let me tell you a story.

I didn’t dare to put my photo on my first business website because I was scared non-coloured folks wouldn’t think I could do the job I was trained to and have lived experiences and evidence of doing. I felt like they wouldn’t be able to trust me.

I was an unknown. So I sought out allyship in the only way I knew would work – references and testimonials from my non-coloured clients and candidates. I did this until I built my audience.

So if a minority professional comes to you seeking references/testimonials for work or services rendered that you are happy with, GIVE ONE!

Prove your allyship and put your name where it matters.

Your majority community will see it, understand it, and (hopefully) register it because you’re doing your bit to put a dent in that sameness.

It’s the little things that make a huge impact.

Author Profile Picture
Stella Leaburn

Brand and Image Consultant

Read more from Stella Leaburn
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