Why Leaders Should Re-Evaluate Their DEI Retention Strategies

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Emma Ascott
Emma Ascott
Emma Ascott is a contributing writer for Allwork.Space based in Phoenix, Arizona. She graduated from Walter Cronkite at Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication in 2021. Emma has written about a multitude of topics, such as the future of work, politics, social justice, money, tech, government meetings, breaking news and healthcare.

For companies who are hoping to shift from the Great Resignation to the Great Retention, it’s time to re-evaluate DEI retention strategies. 

DEI retention

This article was originally published by Allwork.Space.

For companies who are hoping to shift from the Great Resignation to the Great Retention, it’s time to re-evaluate diversity, equity and inclusion retention strategies.

Some leaders blame the workers who leave, but the best look inward and examine themselves and understand how the company’s poor retention practices may be to blame for departures.

While this process is uncomfortable, it is important. Organizations cannot ignore the costs of failing to retain diverse talent. Conversely, they cannot overlook the fact that if they learn how to retain the most marginalized of their members, they will end up benefiting everyone.

If companies don’t take the time to create new strategies to make their workplace one where BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and veterans want to stay, they will fail.

Deanna Singh, leadership and DEI expert, explained why so many organizations have a retention problem with underrepresented people.

Allwork.Space: Why are underrepresented employees quitting?

Deanna Singh: Many companies struggle to retain underrepresented employees, and that problem has intensified with the Great Resignation. What lies at the heart of the problem is that too few organizations have an articulated retention plan, and even those that do have one aren’t likely to have designed it to be sufficiently inclusive.

Even if your company has succeeded at hiring a diverse group of people and has DEI initiatives in place, it simply may not be enough. In today’s landscape, your organization must be more inclusive than the competition to retain diverse talent.

When I consult with organizations that recognize they aren’t retaining enough people from underrepresented groups (and that awareness is a step forward in itself) I begin a diversity audit. As part of that audit, I often ask to see their formal retention plan, which can lead to a lot of head-scratching.

Not all organizations automatically appreciate the need for a retention plan. They keep doing things the way they have always done them, and that simply won’t fly in this labor market.

A retention plan is a critical tool, and it must be designed from the outset to be deliberately inclusive. Otherwise, it will unintentionally reinforce an exclusive model and underrepresented groups will go where they feel they can better develop their careers.

Allwork.Space: Why should companies shift from “exit interviews” to “stay interviews?”

Deanna: For talented, diverse employees to want to stay with your company, you must not only provide an inclusive workplace for them but also be prepared to invest in their growth.

There are still too many employees today who feel as if they’ve been hired as “window dressing.” To encourage them to stay, there has to be a plan in place to show them that their hard work will result in their own development and advancement.

I know this from personal experience. I once left a position when I was told that the company didn’t tend to promote minorities because they just get “poached” by other organizations. I decided then and there to leave, and in a matter of weeks, I had.

Many organizations assume that all they need to do to retain diverse talent is to hire someone, pay them, and prevent the most egregious microaggressions at work. I think many leaders see their commitment to inclusion as similar to taking a Hippocratic oath to do no harm, forgetting that they must also do good.

That’s what’s wrong with exit interviews: they are done postmortem when the relationship is over. The type of stay interviews I recommend are proactive, like a preventative wellness check. After all, if you are wondering what you need to do to keep underrepresented groups employed in your organization, why not ask for their input?

Stay interviews often involve asking questions that are uncomfortable on the surface but are immensely beneficial to ask in the long run. One of my favorites is: When was the last time you thought of leaving us, and what prompted it?

Allwork.Space: Why should companies design a DEI retention plan?

Deanna: Studies have confirmed that traditional retention methods fail when it comes to retaining nontraditional employees. The best way to retain a diverse team is to remove policies that unnecessarily restrict who a person can be at work and to add resources that support different ways of being.

Starting employee resource groups (ERGs) and allowing for flexible hours are two among many strategies organizations are using to remarkable effect in order to stay competitive.

Most importantly, include structured opportunities for growth in your plan. It is such a critical piece that I’ve often thought that we might be better off dispensing with the word “retention” altogether, just so it is perfectly clear to everyone that merely “keeping” people is a lackluster goal. The true goal should be to nurture people and give them opportunities to realize their full potential.

Allwork.Space: What are the financial incentives for retaining underrepresented employees?

Deanna: In 2019, Gallup found that U.S. businesses were losing $1 trillion every year to voluntary turnover. Since turnover has accelerated since then, we can assume that is a conservative figure.

Depending on whether a position is entry-level, mid-level, or executive-level, it can cost from 50–200% of one year’s salary to fill. When an organization has a significant problem retaining people from marginalized groups, it can cause a sobering amount of lost revenue.

Organizations should also consider more subtle losses when employees leave. The loss of institutional knowledge and the constant need to retrain people, for example, can be very disruptive to productivity and morale. Combined with actual recruitment costs, the result is incredible waste that businesses simply can’t ignore.

On the flip side of that, there are considerable benefits to greater retention. Retaining employees means higher pay, greater benefits, and workplace stability for everyone. Essentially, improving life for those who are thinking of leaving improves life for all who stay.

Allwork.Space: If one worker leaves, can that inspire others to leave, even if they want to stay?

Deanna: Underrepresented employees may feel they can reliably use the experiences of others as a crystal ball. If a person from a particular social group has experienced discrimination historically and subsequently witnesses someone of the same color, gender, orientation, or ability status struggling with career barriers in their own workplace, why wouldn’t it give them pause?

One study by Catalyst found that the top three reasons why senior-level women left their companies were all related to career progress. Surprisingly, only 2% left to increase their compensation. 35% left for greater skills development elsewhere, while 33% left for greater career advancement.

You can spot a theme here: women leave organizations that are keeping them static, which is a big threat for minority professionals too. It is still common for them to get caught in the trap of tokenism.

Allwork.Space: How can companies and leaders interrogate their DEI retention plans and conduct diversity audits?

Deanna: First of all, to interrogate your retention plan, you have to have one. As I mentioned earlier, many organizations don’t formalize their retention strategies. If your organization does have a retention plan or you are in the midst of creating one, resist the temptation to blame the people who leave (by thinking they must have been too undisciplined, sensitive, or “not the right fit”) and instead look inward at the internal structures that failed to entice them to stay.

Businesses are incredibly responsive and competitive when it comes to attracting a diverse customer base, and they should be thinking the same way about attracting and retaining talented employees. You have to work hard for it.

Revising company policy and procedures, providing inclusivity training, and structuring positive experiences will take you a long way toward creating a competitive retention plan.

Underrepresented groups frequently jump ship to companies that are making even a minimal investment in these areas.

When organizations learn to retain their most marginalized members, it pays off dramatically. And the effect is universal among employees, not just among underrepresented groups. These are changes that benefit everyone.

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