Something to Ponder…Retaining Diversity: The Four E’s

Facebook’s latest diversity report indicates that it still isn’t hiring enough people of color, and while hiring is very important it is only the first step.  The question I frequently hear is, “Now that I have hired this fantastic person, how do I keep her or him?”  And if you are an employer or someone in a hiring position and haven’t asked yourself why you are losing great talent to other companies or to entrepreneurial endeavors, you should.  I often hear managers chalk it up to the fact that many people leave to make more money or for better opportunities. While these reasons are real and important, managers should dig deeper to understand why they keep losing diverse and talented people.  Having been an employee at a few large companies, I know what I wish these companies would have done to make their organizations far more desirable as places to remain.  Let’s call them the 4 E’s: Expand, Expose, Educate and Elevate. Today I’ll talk about the first E – Expand.

One of the biggest reason’s individuals don’t get hired is one of the biggest reason good hires leave. Many people are told, “I don’t think you will be a great fit with our organization.”  This is usually subjective and might be based on style or appearance; or it might be based on perceptions of attitude or demeanor. It is highly likely that these assessments stem from the culture of the company.  Most companies have a mission; and they tend to operate in a certain way and look for people who will “fit in” and help the company move toward their mission. This “culture exclusivity” is a major reason why people of color leave a company.  If we feel excluded from the company culture, we don’t feel valued; and, thus, we are very open to other opportunities.

For companies to retain people of color they need to Expand their culture.  They need to make it more inclusive. It has been noted in several studies that African Americans, Latinos and Asians many times feel that they can’t bring their full selves to work in the same way their White counterparts do.  This feeling results in less satisfaction and less effectiveness. Frequently, people of color have been told that we are confrontational, too emotional or, even, that we dress too flashy (see my sidebar titled “Socks Almost Killed My Career”). Again, these things are subjective, but they play an important role in how we feel at work.  Expanding the culture doesn’t mean getting rid of it. Expanding means widening the norms to include different ways to approach and solve work challenges. In fact, that is what diversity and inclusion is all about – having people who approach problems from a different perspective; and, thus, provide their companies with a broader array of methods and tools to develop the best solutions.

Have you ever heard people say, “we don’t do it that way,” “that is not our style,” or “we take pride in our culture?”  Well, those are phrases used to say, “conform to our way of doing things.” What’s wrong with having a culture? In theory, nothing! Cultures are there to say we believe in the same things, and we agree with the methods and procedures. This should unify employees because we are all moving in the same direction, right? Well not quite, cultures that are “set in stone” do two things which tend to put people at odds versus unifying them:

First, set cultures are often used to justify power plays.  “We do it this way” is not always about results, but about exercising power over certain employees.  And when that power is exercised people either battle (resulting in the confrontational/emotional label) or acquiesce.  In one position, my manager had me rewrite an internal memo about six to seven times. When the words had been changed to use synonyms and then revised five iterations later back to the original words, I was a bit confused. I wanted to tell my manager that this is what I wrote in the first place, but I didn’t because I wanted to fit in.  I did ask my mentor to review the original and final memos and provide me some feedback to help me perform better. My mentor stated that the original memo was as good but did point out some areas for improvement. However, in the end, he saw no appreciable difference in the two memos. I was told several times by my manager that the rewrites were all about learning how “we do things.” Clearly, the revisions were about doing it the way my boss had learned, but also about her exercising her power over me.  It felt like “baptism by fire.” Did it make me feel unified with my company? No, it told me more than anything that I needed to learn how to fit in, which brings me to my next point.

Second, promoting conformity kills creative, innovative problem solving.  It says, “our way is the only way,” and that in and of itself suppresses diversity.  At one company I was with, we would frequently do research on our client’s customers but wouldn’t include a sample size which would make the results significant for Latinos and African-Americans. I mentioned this once and the response was, “they (Latinos and African Americans) are not our customers.”  Internally, the visionary person in me said: “they could be our customers but since we refuse to do significant research we are possibly losing out on an opportunity”. Externally, the team player in me accepted that explanation and moved on to the next task. In hindsight, I was more interested in keeping my job than being the best at my job.   Equally as important, I was being taught that new ideas and different ways to approach problems were not valued. I was being told to be quiet. Mission accomplished – creative thinking SQUASHED! Today, that same company has several divisions devoted to the Latino, African-American and Asian populations. Imagine where they could be had they had a multi-year head start.

I believe that a narrowly defined culture usually limits the variety of people who work at a particular company and I suggests it impact diverse talent significantly.  How? It may show up in how a team approaches an issue, how and when questions are asked, how research is done, how data is interpreted. It may also show up in presentation style, dress codes, attending company outings and who gets to speak in a meeting.  We know it shows up in companies developing advertising to particular targets without vetting the advertising against that target. We know it shows up in how people of color may be treated when they enter an establishment. So why do we keep ignoring the value of diversity when that value consistently helps companies perform better? It’s one of those things that makes you go hmmm!!

While I frequently felt like I was on the outside looking in, I never thought for a minute that the people I worked for were bad people.  I just thought they fell into the trap of accepting a corporate culture that was narrow and non-inclusive. I just thought that the company had romanticized the culture so much that people forgot about the ultimate goal – serving our customers with excellence.  I just thought the people loved the culture so much they confused the “how we do it” with the “what we do”. If excellence is what we do, then companies must expand how they do it. There is more than one road to excellence. I’m not saying that there should be no standards but rather the standards should facilitate seeking various methods to meet those standards. Sadly, I do think there were some people who were more interested in power than results.  But, whatever the reason culture excludes, companies must review the construct to minimize its limitations.

I spent all that time trying to stay employed by working to fit in, and learned that the real value I brought to the table was my uniqueness. However, it was hard to be my best when the company’s culture stifled creativity and individuality. I do not think for one moment that a company’s environment should be a “free for all” but that companies should actively seek diversity of thought and experiences in addition to ethnicity.  It is my strong belief that if my previous employers had “Expanded” their culture to be more inclusive, I would have had greater buy-in, participated more and produced better results. I am confident I would have been a better employee because I would have felt that my differences were not just tolerated, but valued. Just something to Ponder.

Reginald Ponder
Marketing Executive
The Kaleidoscope Group