Ditching promotion file photos may have helped minorities, report says

by Tommy Grant

A 2020 initiative aimed at reducing racial bias in the military’s advancement process may have had its intended effect of encouraging promotion boards to consider only a candidate’s record, early research by the RAND Corporation shows.

A review of minority promotion numbers showed an increase in officers of color moving up the Army’s ranks, according to a report published Thursday.

“The difference in promotion rates between white officers and racial and ethnic minority officers was narrower after the policy change, mainly for promotion to O-4,” according to the report. “Although continued data collection and follow-on analysis will need to be conducted as more selection boards convene, these results are promising.”

In 2020, as the Pentagon grappled with the fallout of George Floyd’s murder and the discussion it catalyzed on the experiences of Black people in the U.S., then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a handful of initiatives aimed at removing unconscious bias from department policies.

Chief among them was a new format for promotion packets that didn’t include photos, so that board members would not be able to ― consciously or not ― consider a candidate’s skin color when evaluating accomplishments.

The Army took an additional step and redacted most identifying information on the packets, including names, so that reviewers would not be able to guess the gender or ethnicity of the candidates.

RAND found that in the few years since the policy change, more minority officers were promoted.

“Preliminary evidence indicates that removing race and ethnicity identification data from officer selection boards is associated with improved promotion outcomes for racial and ethnic minority groups,” according to the report. “These results are early indicators — the analysis reflects only two years of the policy in place — but the Army should continue to monitor these trends.”

The Rand report’s findings coincide with a larger shift in the military’s overall diversity. Today, minority troops account for 33% of the Army’s lieutenant and captain ranks, compared to a 29% minority representation 15 years ago.

The data, however, shows that in moving up the ranks, white officers are more likely to be promoted ahead of their peers of other backgrounds, setting this demographic up to account for the vast majority of senior leadership.

“For promotion to O-4, Hispanic officers are 45 percent less likely to be promoted below the zone than are white officers, and Black officers are 39 percent less likely to be promoted below the zone,” the report’s authors wrote.

That trend holds with O-5s and O-6s, according to the report.

These numbers are in contrast to data showing that minority officers tend to be more likely to want to stay in uniform, based on differences in retention rates.

“Most racial and ethnic minority groups have lower promotion rates than their white counterparts,” the report says. “Gaps tend to be largest for Hispanic and Black officers. Racial and ethnic minority groups are also less likely to receive below-the-zone promotions to lieutenant colonel than their white counterparts.”

The data does not give much insight into why, researchers found.

The Defense Department has been cognizant of bias in the promotion process for years, as internal data shows that white males tend to account for the bulk of military senior leadership, compared to the services’ less senior ranks.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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