Op-ed: What's Wrong With Executive Recruiters?

An executive recruiter argues that education and protections are essential to combating discrimination against transgender people in the hiring process.

BY Joe McCormack

August 22 2013 3:00 AM ET

I met my first out transgender candidate for a corporate position 13 years ago. We had arranged to meet at a coffee shop north of Los Angeles, and I awaited our rendezvous with some trepidation. At precisely 10 a.m. a very tall and stylishly dressed woman arrived for our meeting. Ms. R, as I will call her, would not have passed easily as a woman. She had the broad shoulders and height of an athlete and a resonant voice. Before our meeting I had assumed that she would likely be a confused and unhappy person. But I found that she was confident, at peace with her decision to transition, and eager to go back to work. After an hour-long meeting — which often brought tears to my eyes as she described the struggles with her former employer, her family, and the community in which she had been a youth and civic leader — I had a new respect and admiration for her determination and courage. It was also clear that she was highly qualified for the position and deserved every consideration. I received a very important lesson about transgender people that day.

Many executive recruiters have never knowingly met a transgender person, so they have all the negative stereotypes I had as a gay man in April of 2000, and possibly more. I was once told by a trans woman that there is a deep-seated suspicion about executive search consultants like me because a great telephone interview is often followed by a personal meeting where they are suddenly disqualified, no matter how strong their credentials. Of course no recruiter who wants to stay out of court would ever tell someone that s/he is disqualified for any reason not related to the job requirements, so there is always some plausible excuse provided for eliminating the candidate.

Is this simple prejudice, or is something else at work here?

A search consultant needs to measure two things to be successful: job-related skills and degree of fit with an organization. The first set of criteria represents the science of recruiting. The second set represents the art. Fit, chemistry, and cultural compatibility are all intangibles, but essential to ensuring a successful and sustainable match. For example, a hard-driving, ruthlessly competitive candidate from a Wall Street investment banking firm would probably be a poor fit for a children’s burn center. While that may seem like an extreme example, I think you can see my point.

What is wrong with many executive recruiters is that they are uneducated about transgender issues, and, as gatekeepers, they often make assumptions about whether a transgender candidate is a good fit for their client. Yes, prejudice is a factor, but a lack of awareness about their client’s human resources policies regarding transgender employees is an even bigger one. In the briefing process between the hiring authority and the recruiter to define the requirements for the position and the characteristics needed in a successful candidate, it rarely comes up. When diversity is discussed it’s almost always in reference to gender, race, or ethnicity. Sexual orientation is seldom at top of mind, even if the company is gay-friendly, let alone gender expression or gender identity.

How do we address this? First, we have to educate and train every recruiter about the transgender talent pool as a valuable resource for their searches. Thirty years ago, the mere hint that a candidate could be gay or lesbian was often enough to eliminate them from the hiring process. Today, even the largest search firms have some openly gay search consultants. In 10 years or even sooner, we may have openly transgender search consultants as well, but until then, we have some work to do. Participation at panel discussions and training sessions for members of the Association of Executive Search Consultants, the National Association of Executive Recruiters, and the International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruiters would be good places to start. Second, as a community, we need to ensure that corporate human resources departments include gender expression and gender identity as a protected characteristic on every position description they write and that they make it clear to the recruiters they hire that this is never a reason for disqualifying an otherwise excellent candidate.

Like the LGB community of 30 years ago, the transgender community is beginning to come out of the professional closet and demand its place at the table. The more visible the transgender community becomes, the more acceptance that transgender professionals will have in the workplace, and so on in a virtuous circle. It’s difficult for most fair-minded people to stereotype or dislike people they work alongside every day, especially if they are good team members and skilled at their jobs. As a recruiter I’ve found that transgender candidates are often overachievers, and they are certainly determined or they would never have undertaken their difficult and sometimes painful personal journeys.


JOE McCORMACK is the managing partner of McCormack & Warren, the first openly gay executive search firm, established in 1993. He is also one of the cofounders of the Association of Transgender Professionals.

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