01/29/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Tackling Talent Bias On and Off the Field


When is a thug not a thug?

Whether you admired or abhorred -- or simply ignored -- Richard Sherman's 15-second rant moments after his interception helped the Seattle Seahawks get to the Super Bowl, we should all be grateful for one thing: The ensuing discussion has taken a topic that no one talks about and brought it front and center.

Sherman's adrenaline-fueled trash-talking of Michael Crabtree, the wide receiver for the defeated San Francisco 49ers, immediately had the Twitter crowd labeling him a "thug." Sherman refuted the allegation, noting that the term is code for a far more incendiary word starting with "N" and that to call him a thug portrays him as a certain stereotype of an African-American male.

"I've done nothing villainous," Sherman said in a subsequent news conference. "They're judging a book by its cover."

It's a familiar story for many African-Americans - and other professionals of color -- in corporate America. Despite ample ambition and solid credentials, African-Americans remain anomalies in the nation's C-suites.

Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation explores why African-Americans aren't perceived as "leadership material" by those with the clout to make them leaders. The most intransigent barrier: To look, sound and act the part of a leader, they need to exude "executive presence (EP)." But because they overwhelmingly feel that EP at their firms is based on white male standards, conforming to these standards exacts a price in authenticity. African-Americans were 97 percent more likely than Caucasians to agree that EP at their company consists of conforming to traditionally white, male standards.

Perceptions outside the workplace too often translate into bias inside the workplace. African-Americans interviewed for the report spoke of how they're careful to modulate their voice, tone and language at work, lest they affirm "historically embedded notions of being aggressive, angry people, people who will blow up," as one interviewee put it. One insurance industry SVP noted, "If I'm loud or animated, my audience, if they're outside my culture, will judge me as less professional."

Richard Sherman was undoubtedly loud -- after all, his team had just won and the stadium was rocking with the cheers of frenzied fans -- and, having contributed to that win with a last-minute interception, was certainly animated. And, as MSNBC commentator Tamron Hall pointed out, his comments were entirely appropriate for the environment: "I marveled at the fact that people were put off by [a show of] aggression by a guy who is paid to knock the other guy off his feet, and he talks tough and people are saying, what, he doesn't have a gardenia in his ear?"

But, as Melissa Harris-Perry noted, reason was overwhelmed by "the residue of a racialized history that rendered Richard Sherman the human being invisible behind the well-worn narrative that was instantly activated because Richard Sherman happens to occupy a black body."

Sherman himself said of the instant assumption that he was a "thug," "You fight it for so long and to have it come back up and people start to use it again, it's frustrating."

For African-Americans in corporate America, such latent bias is more than frustrating. More than half of African-Americans (55 percent) feel they have to work harder than their colleagues to feel included. CTI research found, 35 percent of African-American survey respondents believe that a person of color would never get a top job at his/her company. The result: Many become disengaged -- or leave.

Richard Sherman was fined $7,875 by the NFL for taunting but his diss is could deliver plenty more -- thanks to his new exposure, he stands to make about $5 million in endorsements. We can all benefit by continuing a thoughtful conversation about what it really means to be a thug, in or out of the workplace.