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The Person Inside The Package

I am about to break one of the strongest taboos in American business by publicly discussing how I consider race when I make decisions about hiring, promotion and assignments.

The bottom line is that I don’t.

Much will be said and written about race and affirmative action over the next few weeks. I believe the Supreme Court is about to outlaw the consideration of race in deciding who is admitted to public colleges. The court may go beyond that to ban other sorts of race-based preferences. Opponents of affirmative action will hail the demise of what they consider reverse discrimination. Supporters will accuse the Court’s conservative majority of endorsing unspoken racism and of entrenching economic inequality.

Although it is risky to predict what the Supreme Court is going to do, I am quite certain that at least five justices will conclude that in America today, it makes no sense (and more importantly, it violates governmental obligations of equal protection) to evaluate people in broad groupings based on their pigmentation. I do not expect the majority to disallow programs that promote diversity through the consideration of applicants’ social and economic backgrounds; I do expect the justices to eliminate policies that give admission priority to the child of a black cardiologist, or of a black U.S. president, rather than to the child of a white or Asian grocery clerk.

My firm employs two dozen people. Our current roster includes at least five African-Americans, including our vice president and two other managers. I say “at least” because I honestly don’t know the racial makeup of everyone who works for me. I don’t ask. I don’t care, except when some aspect of our race-conscious society forces me to pay attention.

My affirmative action policy is to hire the best and brightest people I can find, figure out what they are good at doing, and help them reach their potential in ways that are satisfying for them and productive for our business.

We provide financial, tax and business advice to families that range from comfortably affluent to extremely wealthy. In our profession, we might be called a “multi-family office.” In lay terms, we are independent financial planners. Whatever you call us, our industry is not one in which African-Americans are heavily represented. People who keep score would probably consider my firm fairly well integrated, but that is not what matters to me.

What matters is that when a current or potential client meets with one of our advisers, that person knows that everyone who works for us measures up to the same professional standards. When I hire someone for an internal function, such as marketing or administration, I want everyone who already works here to know the same thing.

Our work is unusually demanding, even for a firm in our field. Most advisory firms want their people to become experts in a particular discipline, such as estate planning or investments or income taxes. Our client advisers have to become experts in all of these fields and more. To accomplish that, I need the smartest people I can find. I don't care what they look like. (I happen to think ours is a handsome bunch, however.)

As long as I am in charge, nobody will ever have reason to wonder whether someone at my firm was hired or promoted to fill some affirmative action goal. No employee will ever have reason to question whether I believe he or she is as good as everyone else.

Some of our staff may have benefited from race-conscious programs to increase diversity at the schools they attended. I do not see anything ironic or inconsistent in the fact that the Supreme Court may now ban such programs, at least at public institutions. The court will not prohibit programs that evaluate individual potential in the context of individual circumstances. On that basis, any of our people would have made the cut, regardless of their skin color.

I do not see anything inconsistent, either, in the fact that our firm’s diversity allows us to address audiences that we might not otherwise reach. From time to time, a publication with a predominantly African-American or female audience wants to interview an expert of similar background, typically to talk about issues of particular interest to that group. Is there something wrong with having an African-American expert talk to such a publication? I don’t think so. We all come from our own circumstances and social backgrounds, and we bring our individual perspectives and experiences to our work.

Our small firm is a microcosm of what the Supreme Court may prescribe for future affirmative action programs. It is a future in which we will be required to look past the epidermal packaging and consider the person inside.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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