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“But They Just Keep Leaving”: Creating and Maintaining Diverse and Productive Workplaces

Jennifer A. Stollman, PhD

Over the past few decades, a shift in U.S. workplaces has taken place. Civil rights legislation, research studies revealing diversity in workspaces advances productivity and innovation, and the business community’s acceptance of the importance of diversity, all have encouraged more diverse hiring practices. Most corporate websites and job advertisements include diversity statements supporting affirmative action. Hiring committees look with particular interest at women and people of color, but rarely include people with disabilities. It’s a given that enough progress hasn’t been made to ensure that diverse candidates are rising through the ranks but at least some are getting through the door. It’s only recently that employers have begun to see the value of hiring individuals with disabilities.

Most companies and workers are committed to equity and inclusion. Unfortunately, after hiring diverse candidates, many companies fail to create and sustain equitable and inclusive workplace environments. Despite our best efforts, all of us carry notions of implicit bias into our workspaces that reinforce racial, class, gender, ethnic and ability hierarchies and stereotypes. Our inability to recognize our biases makes it difficult to work with colleagues who challenge our idea of what is normal or acceptable. We are uncomfortable discussing our differences. Individuals hired under the auspices of diversity soon feel marginalized, are labeled as difficult, and are accused of requesting special accommodations when, in point of fact, they are trying to level the playing field of productivity and career development. Poor work reviews lead to discouragement, isolation, and alienation which then leads to skyrocketing attrition rates that hurt the workplace and negatively impact the cost of the workforce. Employers need tools to retain a diverse workforce and to effectively address unconscious bias related to diversity hiring.

Work cultures must, in obvious ways, demonstrate value and support people's diversity for their experiences, expertise, and perspectives. The following tips provide effective measures to build and maintain equitable workspaces. In taking these steps, businesses can build healthy, productive, and innovative workspaces.

Tips for Creating and Sustaining Diverse and Inclusive Workplaces

Onboarding Expectations: During the hiring process, all candidates should learn about the company’s commitment to diversity. Organizations must embed diversity into employees’ work habits, and that begins with the onboarding process. Company materials and norms should explicitly support inclusive environments and zero tolerance for discrimination. Businesses should not expect new hires to know how to operate in diverse environments. Provide suggestions and tips for joining and maintaining diverse and inclusive environments.

Examining and Eliminating Bias in Policies and Practices: Devote time to review the company's policies and practices to identify and eliminate bias. Revise formal and informal policies and practices and create reasonable implementation practices. Introduce these changes in positive ways, emphasizing how these changes benefit the employees, make the workspaces more comfortable and productive, and improve job task quality and completion.

Regular and Scaffolded Anti-Bias Training: Do away with those boring and annoying anti-discrimination learning modules or "one and done" training sessions. People blow past them, ignore the info, or laugh at how irrelevant they are to real-life work situations. Let's stop addressing diversity solely from legally punitive positions. Emphasize the tremendous benefits accrued when we activate diversity and inclusion in our workspaces. Schedule regular professional development anti-bias sessions with each subsequent session building on the previous ones; thereby increasing the equity and inclusion quotient of the business. Be sure to use an anti-deficit approach--one that meets folks where they are, not solely where we'd like them to be. Seek professional trainers who tailor their sessions to the business' unique needs, challenges, and strengths. Demand that trainings include time where the employees can apply diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) tools and skills real-life situations, projects, and potential roadblocks. Mandate that ALL employees participate in the training sessions.

Community Building Dialogues: Well-intentioned company outings designed to build community often end up emphasizing divisions by failing to take into account the diverse workforce on the team. The “morale building” zipline is a classic example. In contrast, regular staff meetings are excellent opportunities for the company to build a robust work community. It's easy and convenient and reaps tremendous rewards. Reserve time and space for the employees to get to know each other beyond how they are perceived. Develop quick but effective activities designed to get the employees talking and engaging beyond work tasks. Developing a connected work community fortifies the work environment, ensures that company goals are met, and trains the employees on how to work with the clients who surely are diverse in one way or another.

Modeling from the Top: Executives or managers must visibly display support for diversity and inclusion. A significant employee complaint is that higher-ups fail to uphold company DEI goals as well as senior-leadership lacking diverse representation. This sends a clear message that a company is only paying lip service and does not value diversity and inclusion. Leaders must attend DEI training with staff and be actively engaged in the community building exercises. Leaders set the standard for diversity inclusion and retention.

Regular Climate Surveys: Employers cannot rely on anecdotes and written practices as a means to measure the success of diversity and inclusion efforts. Develop quarterly, quick, but informative surveys to solicit feedback about the workplace diversity and inclusion from the people who know best--the employees. Use that feedback to improve workplace environments, revise company policies and practices, decrease attrition, advance and expand the company's objectives, grow the client base, and increase employee loyalty and retention.