Minority Isolation and Other Unseen Forces Behind Diverse Employee Turnover

Abisola Adekoya, Senior Consultant
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At the recent ColorComm NextGen Conference, an event created for and by women of color in the communications field, I was astonished by the number of women grappling with a question I found all too familiar: In the face of workplace discrimination, do I dig my heels in and fight for change (as much for myself as for those to follow) or do I look elsewhere?

The question arose countless times throughout the full-day event. In nearly every session, panelists and/or conference participants openly confronted the tension between these seemingly divergent paths. We seem to have all encountered some form of workplace discrimination (from being talked over, to not getting credit for our work to pay inequity). And many, if not all of us, had sought corrective action through the conventional channels to no avail (speaking to our managers or others in leadership, making official HR complaints, etc.). With few meaningful improvements to speak of, we were left at a crossroads. And many conference participants lamented (and resented) the need to jump from job to job in search of fair and equitable treatment. In the words of one participant, “Why should we have to leave? We didn’t do anything wrong.” Why indeed.

Surprisingly, only 3% of Fortune 500 companies release complete employee diversity data and far fewer release data on diverse employee turnover (or the related cost). But, research has shown that being a gender or racial minority predicts higher employee turnover. According to HR thought leader Dr. John Sullivan, companies are often shocked once they do crunch the numbers and see that their rate of diverse employee turnover, sometimes referred to as the “diversity revolving door,” is off the charts.

Diversity Recruitment vs. Retention: An uneasy Tension

When workplace diversity and inclusion is discussed, recruitment is often the focus. But what happens when diverse talent makes their way through the door? Based on the data, not enough.

 In the tech industry, for example, where diversity is a well-reported problem, women are twice as likely to leave as men and black and Latino employees are 3.5 times more likely to quit than their white or Asian counterparts. According to research conducted by the Kapor Center, this loss of talent, most often attributed to unfairness or mistreatment in the form of stereotyping and bullying, costs the U.S. tech industry more than $16 billion each year.

The disproportionate amount of attention and investment directed towards diversity recruitment versus retention, may demonstrate that far too many companies still view diversity and inclusion as a box ticking exercise. Decades of advocacy has forced companies to scrutinize their diversity recruitment figures and change their hiring practices accordingly. But organizational culture is unlikely to respond to an HR mandate. And from my personal experience, and those of my peers, culture has an enormous impact on retaining diverse talent.

 My Story and a Look at the Data

 As a mid-level professional, who has generally been the only person of color within their department, and one of less than a handful within an entire organization, this issue hits close to home.

The only word I can think of to describe my experience as a diverse employee is lonely. Having grown up in a predominantly white community and attended predominantly white educational institutions, this isn’t an unfamiliar feeling. I’m used to going the extra mile to relate to my classmates and colleagues and put them at ease. I’ve learned their cultural references and slang, picked up on their norms and communication styles. In a nutshell, I’ve assimilated. But, as I suspect anyone who has ever been the “odd one out” in their workplace can relate to, I’ve still felt isolated.

 A look at the data suggests I’m not alone. Even the companies with the best diversity recruitment statistics, struggle to maintain those candidates once they come onboard. I suspect the emotional and psychological toll of this isolation could be a major factor.

 In Working Identity Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado, one of the few researchers to delve into the emotional toll of being a minority at work, argue that members of minority groups—women of all races, racial-minority men, LGBTQ people—often feel the need to tread lightly to avoid reinforcing common cultural stereotypes or upsetting the majority group’s sensibilities. Over time, this can take a considerable emotional toll, one that’s often unseen and unmitigated — at least not until diverse employees begin to leave.

Practical Guidance

 So how you can address the emotional toll of minority isolation and keep your diverse staff from leaving?

·      Create safe places — It’s hard to overestimate the value of creating a space for diverse staff to vent, build community and, frankly, feel less alone. Many large organizations establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to facilitate this sort of communion among diverse employees, but external events, like ColorComm, also provide an invaluable opportunity for diverse employees to connect.

·      Encourage inclusivity — Companies like AirBnB have removed certain personal questions (on hobbies, educational background, experiences, etc.) from their recruitment process to reduce bias. It isn’t practical (or advisable) to prohibit personal conversations at work, but it is important to be mindful of how certain conversation topics or extracurricular activities could exclude or further isolate employees of a different race, gender, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. from the majority.

Invest in employee assimilation — Entering a new organization is never easy, but doing so when you are the only (or one of few) of your race, gender religion, etc. adds an extra layer of complication to the workplace assimilation process. Yet most organizations do not offer specialized onboarding for diverse new hires. Failing to address the unique challenges a diverse hire might encounter within your organization early on, could, at most, lead to disillusionment and, at least, result in an unnecessarily bumpy assimilation process. Specialized onboarding could be as simple as arranging an optional lunch or coffee with diverse leadership within your company (perhaps the leader of the most relevant ERG) or as complicated as developing a diverse onboarding subprogram.

Equip managers with the appropriate resources — There are a wealth of resources available to advise managers on diversity recruiting, but almost no guidance available on how to manage and retain diverse employees. In the absence of such resources, managers of diverse new hires won’t necessarily be equipped with a full understanding of their employees’ unique needs and expectations. Additionally, managers with a proven track record of effectively managing diverse staff should be recognized and rewarded accordingly and put in a position to advise others.

·      Confront unconscious bias —The effects of unconscious biases on diversity recruitment is now well documented. Though less researched, unconscious bias can also affect every facet of a diverse employees’ experience within an organization. We all have unconscious biases which, by their very nature, are challenging to counter. But acknowledgement is the first step. Mandatory unconscious bias training should be the standard for any organization committed to diversity and inclusion.

Often, discussions of work place diversity center around the impersonal – HR policies, training and business outcomes – but overlook the more social, interpersonal, and – dare I say – emotional aspects of the topic. By doing so, one runs the risk of ignoring many of the leading factors that contribute to diverse talent turnover.

No one is color or gender blind. To pretend so does us all a disservice. A welcoming, inclusive and productive workplace comes from acknowledging (and making the most of) our differences, not ignoring them.

For decades, we’ve put the spotlight on diversity recruitment and hiring practices have improved as a result. It’s time to do the same with diversity retention. More employers need to acknowledge and address the emotional toll of minority isolation and other unseen forces their diverse employees might encounter. If they do, perhaps one day fewer minority professionals will be forced to grapple with that same impossible question: Do I continue to tolerate workplace discrimination or leave a job I love?