4 Things Every Company Should Do to Retain Underrepresented Talent

October 8, 2020

black man sitting in a sofa working on his laptop

A few years ago, the Kapor Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers in tech, released the Tech Leavers Study, examining the reasons people choose to quit  jobs. The study’s goal was to uncover how toxic company cultures, microaggressions, bullying, and other inappropriate workplace behavior impact voluntary turnover among different groups — and whether this contributes to tech’s poor diversity numbers overall.

The report uncovered a number of troubling drivers of turnover among underrepresented groups. For example, nearly 25% of Black and Latino employees reported experiencing stereotyping in their previous job, and LGBTQ employees were twice as likely as non-LGBTQ employees to face public humiliation at work. Women from all backgrounds were also significantly more likely to face sexual harassment than men.

These findings underscore the need for corporate diversity strategies to extend beyond recruiting and hiring efforts. Building a diverse talent pipeline is a good start, but the work can’t stop there. Without fostering an inclusive culture where people from all backgrounds can feel they belong, companies may develop a revolving door problem, where employees from  underrepresented groups leave just as fast as they’re hired. 

To gain a better understanding of what it takes to retain underrepresented talent, we spoke to Lindsey Siegel, internal careers talent partner at Salesforce, Gerri Mason Hall, chief diversity and social responsibility officer at Sodexo, and Lesley Toche, founder and CEO of Nextplay, a career development platform for Black and Latino tech professionals. They outlined four pillars every company can focus on to promote inclusivity and create a sense of belonging for all.

Here are the strategies they recommend. 

1. Ensure leadership is committed to change and willing to be vulnerable

To design effective retention strategies aimed at underrepresented communities, it’s critical that companies partner with employees from those groups to gain a clear understanding of their experience and what they need to be successful. To do that, companies first need to cultivate trust — and that starts with demonstrating that leaders are invested in meaningful change, rather than just checking boxes.

“I've seen some leaders come into the conversation like, ‘Hey, I want to do better for you folks because Black Lives Matter,’” Lindsey says. I think the more constructive conversations start with, ‘I've just had an awakening. I didn't realize it was this bad. And I realize I've been complicit. Let me start with some inner work or self exploration instead of asking someone who is Black all the answers’”

These conversations aren’t easy, and they will necessarily involve more listening than talking. Lindsey says leaders need to take a leaf out of Brené Brown’s book and get comfortable being vulnerable, because they’re not going to like everything they hear.

“Leaders need to be ready to be told, ‘You’re wrong, and you’ve possibly upheld a system that’s not working for everyone,’” she says. “That’s hard to chew. So I say, buckle up.”

“Putting out big statements and then not following through is the death knell,” agrees Gerri. “You have to listen.”

2. Take the time to understand the real reasons underrepresented employees leave

Before they can effectively tackle turnover among underrepresented groups, companies need to identify what’s driving it. Looking at attrition data and employee engagement surveys is a useful starting point, but most organizations will need to dig deeper to get the complete picture — because there’s unlikely to be one monolithic reason that explains everything. 

“You have to actually partner with your employees and employee resource groups (ERGs) to truly understand what their experience is like,” Lindsey says, “because we know exit interviews are not capturing the whole story.”

Running focus groups with different ERGs is one way to gain more nuanced and accurate insights into both the big attrition drivers and the little factors that contribute to a negative workplace experience. Before this can happen, it’s essential that companies build credibility and trust among these groups. As noted above, showing that the leadership team is truly committed to diversity and inclusion is the first step; outlining some of the tangible steps the company is taking to better support underrepresented employees and to rein in systemic discrimination — and how these efforts are being tracked — can also go a long way. As Lindsey points out, if underrepresented groups have historically felt like they don’t belong, they’re unlikely to have had frank conversations about their experiences in the past.

“When you’re operating in a place in which you don’t feel you belong, you aren’t thinking long term,” she says. “You’re not thinking, ‘What’s my career going to look like?’ You’re getting up every day and thinking, ‘I have to go into this toxic work environment.’ And employees aren’t having these conversations with their manager because they’re operating from a place of fear.”

3. Provide access to career coaching and sponsorship from senior leaders

A common driver of turnover among underrepresented groups is a lack of development opportunities. This results in a so-called “broken rung,” where some employees face a more challenging climb to the top than others.

For example, Lean In and McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report found that while men and women are more or less equally represented in entry-level roles across the United States, only 85 women are promoted to managers for every 100 men who reach this level. This discrepancy is even larger for women of color, with only 58 Black women and 71 Latinx being promoted. And since there are fewer women in management positions to promote, these gaps only widen further at more senior levels.

To help bridge these gaps at Salesforce, Lindsey is currently working on a career development program that connects Black, Latinx, and Indigenous US-based talent to opportunity, resources, experiences, and executive sponsorship.

“It’s intentionally not a mentorship program,” she explains. “We’re pairing them with sponsors who can essentially advocate for them.”

Having someone in a high position who can champion them even when they’re not in the room can dramatically improve an employee’s chances of being promoted or receiving stretch assignments — which in turn makes it easier for them to envision a future at the company. Underrepresented groups report having less access to sponsorship than their peers, and relationship currency can become even more important than performance currency when employees are trying to advance. 

Creating a formal sponsorship program is one program that contributes to greater equity, but it’s not the end-all solution. That said, Lindsey recommends keeping the first interaction between employees and their sponsors somewhat casual, as this can help create a genuine connection.

“We want to spark personal investment,” she says. “Let’s put the agenda aside and get to know who people are and what their values are, instead of jumping straight into, ‘How can I help you?’”

4. Bake diversity, inclusion, and belonging into everything

To create truly diverse and inclusive workplaces, companies need to sweat the small stuff. Big initiatives like sponsorship programs are important — but so are little details like the images you include on your career site and the food you order the team at lunch. 

“If we had anything that was remotely Caribbean or that had any kind of African influence, or just food that Black people like to eat, we got super excited,” Lesley recalls about a previous role. “It happened once in a while, and we told everyone, ‘Don’t miss lunch today!’” 

Employees who are well represented at a company might not initially recognize why this is a big deal — but as Lesley points out, that’s because they get to feel catered to every day. When workplaces are designed by and around a specific group, employees who fall outside of that group can feel like outsiders. Weaving elements of many different cultures and backgrounds into daily life at the company — from the type of activities planned for offsites to the music playing in the elevator — can help everyone feel like they belong. 

“People say diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance,” Gerri says, “but belonging is being asked to share your playlist.”

To ensure your efforts feel authentic, it’s important to source from and work with minority-owned-and-operated businesses as much as possible. This shows that your company is approaching inclusion thoughtfully, while also providing a great opportunity to financially support the wider community and local businesses. 

Final thoughts

Low retention rates among underrepresented groups can create a snowball effect, with employees feeling increasingly less welcome as they see fewer and fewer people who look like they do. But when companies take steps to foster inclusivity and belonging, the opposite can happen — making it easier to not only retain diverse talent, but to attract it. 

“What really makes a difference is seeing people like you,” says Lesley, who has worked in jobs where he was the only Black person on the floor. “Not seeing people who look like me and people who sound like me, I had imposter syndrome. And then I started getting more involved in ERGs. That helped — just seeing and being around people that I can relate to.”

It can take time to uncover and rectify the often deep-rooted issues that are affecting the retention of underrepresented groups. But even incremental improvements can make a massive difference in the lived experiences of employees. The key is to keep tracking efforts to ensure progress is being made, and keep listening to employees every step of the way.

“If you are going to design anything to empower a population or community, they have to be involved throughout the entire process,” Lindsey says, “from design to launch to scale.”

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