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The NFL’s Rooney Rule won’t solve tech’s diversity problem

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The tech industry needs to improve on the rule, not emulate it

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Last week, Facebook joined Amazon in adopting a version of the “Rooney Rule,” which intends to promote diversity in hiring. Amazon says the Rooney Rule just formalizes a policy that’s already in place to interview at least one woman and person of color for future board of director positions. Facebook tells The Verge that it will apply the rule company-wide. In the NFL, the policy requires companies to interview candidates of color for executive positions or else risk fines from the league. Even then, the Rooney Rule has had a limited impact on diversity within the NFL.

Facebook, on the other hand, says it will self-police when it comes to following the Rooney Rule. In a statement to The Verge, Facebook wrote, “In terms of accountability, there is accountability in that we have published this new policy publicly in our Corporate Governance Guidelines, so if the Board fails to follow this policy, the directors would be subject to significant investor and media scrutiny and potential shareholder claims.” Amazon did not respond to questions about accountability or penalties. Without giving it teeth, the Rooney Rule’s adoption in tech will likely result in nothing more than checking off a “we care about diversity” box.

The Rooney Rule is named after former Steelers owner and chairman of the league’s diversity committee Dan Rooney, who crafted the policy in order to help solve the lack of African-American head coaches in the NFL. Rooney saw it as a way to promote equality in the industry.

The Rooney Rule, which was adopted across the NFL in 2003, was a step in the right direction. It required teams to interview at least one person of color for head coaching positions. In 2009, the NFL expanded the rule to apply to general manager jobs and equivalent front office positions; in 2016, the requirement was updated to make sure that at least one woman was interviewed during the hiring process for executive positions, though that does not include head coaching positions.

It makes sense that tech companies would want to adopt the Rooney Rule. For one, the industries share glaring similarities: all but one of the 32 NFL team owners are white men. Minorities only make up 31 percent of leadership positions at Amazon, Apple, and Google; at Amazon, all of the board directors are white.

But the Rooney Rule has not been an overwhelming success in the NFL. The scope of the rule is too limited, the penalties are too weak, and the final result is disappointing.

The number of minority coaches in the NFL has gone up in the years since the Rooney Rule went into effect, so it hasn’t been for nothing. Before implementation, the NFL topped out at three black NFL coaches, or just 9 percent of all coaches. Since implementation, that figure has risen to eight coaches, or 25 percent. But they are still significantly outnumbered by their white counterparts. Progress has stalled since 2005, with the number of minority head coaches fluctuating between six and eight.

In the rule’s current iteration, minority candidates are still often interviewed to “check off a box,” and teams go on to hire white candidates. There is no set of checks and balances to ensure a fair interview, no guarantee that any of the minority candidates will be offered a job, and there’s only a relatively small punishment for transgressions.

Only once has a team been found in violation of the Rooney Rule. In 2003, the Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen was personally fined $200,000 for “failing to discharge his duties” under the rule. After that, owners were told that further violations would draw a $500,000 fine. That’s an improvement, sure, but it’s still pennies for the multibillionaires who own these franchises.

The NFL’s rule also doesn’t go low enough in the food chain. Providing an opportunity for minorities in big positions is good, but it’s also important to feed the pipeline by applying the rule to jobs that lead up to those roles. The NFL informally enforces the rule to smaller coordinator positions, but it doesn’t apply penalties for noncompliance. For women like Jen Welter, who has tried to climb the coaching ladder, the fact that the rule does not apply to women in head coaching positions is a serious hurdle. It’s a weak showing by the league. This is one area where we can give Facebook credit for putting forth a better effort for greater diversity.

Tech companies looking to adopt the Rooney Rule need to be mindful of its spotty record. Companies like Facebook and Pinterest have been testing the Rooney Rule since 2015, but diversity in tech is still lacking. Strict punishments need to be set to keep these companies accountable, and the rule needs to apply to positions at every level. Otherwise, the Rooney Rule adoption trend will be a matter of performance rather than substance.

Harry Lyles Jr. is a staff writer for SB Nation with a focus on the NFL and NBA.