Advice for Employers and Recruiters

How your diversity activities can increase retention

Libby Rothberg AvatarLibby Rothberg
February 22, 2018


Do you know whether your diversity activities results in increased retention? Any organization that is known for churning through its diverse talent will have a hard time recruiting future diversity. Here we get into challenges for HR leaders, including causes of high turnover, the impact cultural sensitivity, specific ideas for retention strategies, and what millennials bring to the table. We spoke with Martin Edmondson, CEO of GradCore, and with Janine Truitt, Chief Innovations Officer at Talent Think Innovations.

Causes of high turnover among diverse talent 

In general, high employee turnover is usually due to employees being underpaid or over worked. Other common causes that Janine Truitt points out include a hostile work environment, toxic management, no recognition of good work, and feelings of not doing impactful work.

In addition to all those reasons, Truitt says that turnover of diverse talent turnover gets a little bit more granular. Diverse employees may leave due to an exclusionary work place or one where they can’t show up fully as they are; not much other diversity; no attempts to make sure they feel included and not like an outsider; and just plain disparity.

One disparity could be people of color being paid or promoted at a lower rate than their white coworkers. Not receiving compensation or recognition for similar efforts, or even extraordinary efforts, can be extremely frustrating. Truitt makes it clear that these inequitable circumstances will drive people away fast. They don’t want to work their butts off for a company that doesn’t treat them fairly.

A popular diversity activity that is often meant to increase retention is offering Employee Resource Groups. ERGs have been around for a long time, but many doubt how much change they really bring. One problem standing in the way is that senior leadership does not often get involved in any meaningful way. Leadership much get involved, hear what’s being said, and take action. Truitt asserts, “Those are the companies that are going to excel in this game.”

It isn’t hard to understand that everyone wants to feel valued and included. Yet, many organizations are still lacking in making diverse employees feel this way. It takes an increased effort on the part of leadership and management to make things change.

Even when HR makes an effort to focus on diversity and inclusion, Martin Edmondson sees employers focus on some groups more than others. Currently, HR sees diversity mostly through gender and ethnicity or race. Other dimensions of diversity get less attention and fewer resources, such as different abilities and sexual orientations.

Recruiters of diverse talent must be transparent about the workplace 

There is a huge focus right now on recruiting diverse talent, but not as much focus on retaining that talent. Edmondson claims, “Retention often comes down to expectation dissonance.” Recruiters often talk about all of their benefits and skip over the stuff they need to improve. This gives new employees a false expectation of the environment they are about to join. Edmondson’s advice is to not let big problems come out as surprises. It is important to attract candidates with your unique qualities and benefits, but it is also important to remain honest. Edmondson encourages recruiters to be honest and talk about things that are not as great, and express how you are attempting to fix them.

Younger generations expect transparency. If a new employee knows what they are getting into from the start, the good and the bad, it wouldn’t be a surprise when they encounter the bad. Being up front about the challenges at the company will allow future conversations with frustrated employees to be much more constructive and less confrontational.

Recruiters have to function like marketers. Figuring out how to sell opportunities while being open about the negatives is a difficult task. It’s very different than how HR has operated in the past, and the organizations who make the shift will likely succeed in developing its talent to grow the organization.

White paper: Recruiting Can’t Be Strategic Until It Shifts to a Marketing Approach. Here’s How.

Organizational culture should not be static, and millennials’ expectationsDiversity activities can retain talent or push it out

Despite all the talk about hiring for fit, it is not inclusive to expect all employees to fit into a static culture that already exists. The expectation of assimilation is problematic. Truitt says, “When it comes to diversity, you’ve got to shift a little bit… Ultimately you have all of these different individuals who are showing up as whomever they, coming from whatever background: socioeconomic class, ability, ethnicity, gender, sexuality.”

At what point does ‘fitting into the company culture’ switch to cultural exclusion? Is it fair to ask someone to change who they are to assimilate into your company? Truitt explains, “We need to shift how we think about fairness. What’s fair to one person isn’t necessarily fair to another.”

Younger professionals have a different expectation than baby boomers or Gen Xers. They expect to be able to bring their whole selves to work—they don’t want to leave their identities behind. This can be an advantage for an organization in developing their talent to its full potential.

Truitt draws attention to how millennials have almost ‘consumerized’ HR. They have a different standard than older generations did. Millennials no longer will stand for a company that tells them they need to change who they are. If they don’t get that from your organization, they will look elsewhere. Truitt points out that millennials are speaking to things previous generations felt but didn’t know how or feel empowered enough to articulate.

Diversity activity that gets to the root of a retention problem: stay interviews

Stay interviews have become much more common in the past few years. While it is helpful to do an exit interview and hear why someone decided to leave your organization, it’s better to be predictive and fix issues before they become retention problems.

Related: HR metrics from the stay interview

Stay interviews are an opportunity to check in with a new or struggling employee to see how things are going. Some very simple but meaningful questions Truitt offers are: “Do you feel like the work aligns with what we told you when we hired you? If not, how can we improve?” “What is your relationship like with your manager? How can that improve?” “What’s your team dynamic? Are you comfortable in that team dynamic?” “Is there anyone lacking that we can help you with?”

Truitt says that managers have to be “better at noticing when they need to be having that conversation.” A lot of the time, people decide to leave a company because they feel like they weren’t communicated with or told important information about their standing in the company.

Edmondson draws a parallel to higher education. Retention of students is a top priority of schools. They find those who look like they are going to bail before they actually do. Find out the reason behind it and fix it. Edmondson asks, “We’ve seen it work in an education context why not in an HR context? We must coach managers so that they can see the signs that they need to elevate to a more serious conversation.”

When you ask the employee how things are going instead of them coming to you, you put the onus on them. You are taking initiative and saying you’re not perfect but you can get better. You are asking for their partnership in improving the company. The key is welcoming real change that emerges from the stay interview. Listening to the complaints and saying you will work on it is not enough. You have to take action and make things change. Truitt says this is where companies often miss the mark. They get all of the data and then don’t do anything with it.

Addressing societal issues in the workplace is a retention strategy

The corporate desire to be apolitical is outdated. A rising number of CEOs are using their influence to become more vocal and even becoming activists. If you feel strongly about your values, Edmondson stresses the importance of acting on those values to speak against or for social issues outside your walls. Increasingly, senior leaders are speaking out publicly. They’re choosing to enter political debate to stand up against what they think is fundamentally wrong.

Companies need to understand that life and work are blending at a faster rate. It’s not realistic for employers to look at life and work as separate things anymore. Truitt stresses that “companies have to get ahead of what we see playing out in society and really decide what end of the coin they’re going to be on.” Deciding which side is just the start. They need to “know how they want to address it and do so broadly in a really real way.”

Companies have to get ahead of what’s playing out in society and decide what end of the coin they’re going to be on.

Discuss issues with focus groups, and listen to individuals from targeted groups about how larger issues are affecting their work. For example, many companies in the U.S. have Dreamers working for them. If you do, you need to be talking to them about whether they feel comfortable at work or not. People want real dialogue, not a canned diversity activity or training. Companies that humble themselves and figure out how to get this done effectively will be way ahead of those that don’t.

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