Team owner Dan Rooney (left) announced the hiring of Mike Tomlin (with his wife, Kiya) as the Pittsburgh Steelers' first African-American head coach in 2007. AP

Pittsburgh will borrow a page from the NFL’s diversity playbook in order to get more people of color into leadership positions in city government.

The city of Pittsburgh will no longer make hiring decisions for leadership positions in city government without interviewing at least one person who is not a white male. This was the hiring approach instituted in 2003 by the recently deceased Dan Rooney, who was president of the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL team that his family owns. As chair of the NFL’s diversity and inclusion committee, he was able to have the entire NFL adopt this hiring policy, and it’s been called the “Rooney Rule” ever since.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto decided to honor Mr. Rooney by adopting a similar hiring rule for city government hiring. An executive order he signed on Wednesday creates a Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the city and directs the government’s hiring personnel to:  

Create and implement a policy that ensures purposeful recruitment of diverse candidates and requires the City to interview at least one external and one internal diverse candidate before the final selection of a candidate for any supervisory position in City government, such as directors, deputy directors, managers, and supervisors.

The order asks city personnel directors to rummage through civil service commission rules for places that can be fine-tuned with better diversity recruitment policies for non-leadership positions as well. The city is to complete an annual report on city hiring to monitor progress under the executive order.

The Rooney Rule is most certainly affirmative action of a higher magnitude, but it has been effective for the NFL: Head coaches of two recent Super Bowl winners—the Steeler’s Mike Tomlin and the Indianapolis’ Colts Tony Dungy—are African Americans, and both credit the Rooney Rule for the opportunity. There are currently eight NFL coaches who are not white; in 2003, when the rule was adopted, just two non-white men were in head coaching jobs. Only seven non-white coaches had been hired in the NFL up to that point.

The city of Pittsburgh is hoping to replicate that kind of success for its own diversity goals—although the city government is already pretty diverse, as Fast Company reported back in 2015. However, by focusing on leadership positions that come with higher salaries, the new Rooney Rule executive order aims to narrow the racial income gap for city employees that has only widened over the decades. An Urban Institute study from 2014 found that across local government agencies whites make up nearly 75 percent of high-wage earners compared to just 11.2 percent for African Americans. Wrote The Washington Post’s Reid Wilson about the study:

In the 100 largest metropolitan areas, the disparity is even more stark: Whites make up 57.8 percent of the population in those cities, and 69.7 percent of high-wage jobs. By contrast, blacks make up 13.8 percent of the population and account for 20.6 percent of low earning jobs.

If diversity and inclusion goals are only affecting entry- and mid-level jobs, that won’t be enough to close the legacy racial gaps that continue to plague cities. In Pittsburgh, transplant tech companies like Uber should be taking notes—the ride-hailing firm’s latest diversity numbers are trash. Elsewhere, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Pinterest have all accepted the Rooney Rule challenge, adopting variations on the principle for their own hiring. Hopefully, this will start trending.

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