Building an Inclusive Workplace: Six Ways to Retain Diverse Talent

You’ve worked hard to recruit amazing people into your company. Think of the time you’ve spent reviewing resumes, scheduling interviews, talking to candidates, debating who will bring the most value to the team, and navigating the offer and negotiation process – not to mention orientation and on-boarding. If you’ve done it right, you’re probably excited about adding another promising and talented member to your team.

But once they’ve settled in your office, what are you doing to retain your diverse talent? I’m not convinced most companies realize how expensive turnover is, in terms of money, time, reputation, and the wasted potential of what the employee could have achieved for the company. We instinctively know that when someone who is performing their job well voluntarily leaves, there is a cost to the company. However, most companies just haven’t taken the time or haven’t had the insight to try to quantify how much it costs.

Employee turnover costs more than you probably think. Some consultants and companies who have run the numbers estimate the costs of an entry-level position turning over at 50 percent of salary, mid-level positions at 125 percent of salary, and senior executives at over 200 percent of salary. Essentially, the numbers only go up the more specialized, productive, tenured, or senior that employee was in the company.

And turnover has a way of rippling out so that it also affects your current employees in terms of engagement, productivity, and client and customer service.    

So, what’s the best way to retain diverse employees? Be an inclusive company! I know, these words get mentioned a lot, so let’s dig into what it means to be inclusive in the workplace, and why it will benefit your business. 

This is how some brilliant HR voices, like Katie Augsburger, a consultant at Future Work Design, have explained it: if you create a workplace that is accessible and inclusive for the employees who have traditionally been excluded, the workplace becomes better for everyone.

Take the analogy of the curb cut (I just learned that this is the proper term for the dip in sidewalks at crossings), which was originally installed to make public streets accessible to wheelchair users. Despite the fact that it was intended to benefit a relatively small amount of people, everyone has benefited from the “curb cut effect.” Just think of parents pushing strollers, delivery people, people carrying heavy bags, people with joint pain, bikers, and skateboarders – everyone has benefited from this inclusive modification.

But what do we mean when we say be an inclusive company? I think the definition that pops up on Google explains it well:

Inclusivity: an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial and sexual minorities.

Because, if you are intentionally including those who are most likely to run into barriers at your office, you will see an overall increase in employee retention. For example, the flexibility policy you created to assist an employee with a disability that allows them to work remotely as needed can help retain and engage an employee who takes care of their aging parents. The formal mentorship program you created to promote more diversity in leadership benefits all of the employees who participate. The inclusive language you use in your job description adds many more women to your candidate pipeline because they aren’t turned off by words like “hacker” or “competitive.”

But, what does all of this look like in practice? Here are six ways to make your office more inclusive:

Challenge your definitions of “professionalism” and “leadership” within your organization – and then hire and promote diverse leaders.

Focus on the image that pops into your head when you think about a business leader. I imagine, for most people, this image is of a grey-haired, clean-cut, white man in a suit. That’s certainly how it’s reflected in Fortune 500 companies, where 94.6% of CEOs are men and only .6% of those leaders are black.

But if that is the definition of leadership, what are we missing out on? A lot, as it turns out:

  • Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
  • Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
  • Companies in the bottom quartile both for gender and for ethnicity and race are statistically less likely to achieve above-average financial returns than the average companies in the data set (that is, bottom-quartile companies are lagging rather than merely not leading).
  • In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes rise 0.8 percent.

Try challenging the idea that leadership needs to present in a certain assertive, masculine way. Embrace professionalism outside of the vision of a suit and you might find your company has a very different approach to success.

As some incredible women founders wrote in their article “Sex & Startups”: “We’re as excited as anyone at the prospect of making money from the companies we’ve built — companies we hope will grow and flourish. But growth is more than numbers. Growth means improving our local communities; promoting our employees’ happiness; acquiring paying, loyal customers; helping users succeed; making and measuring improvements in people’s lives; and spurring cultural change. This is a more nuanced view of growth, but one in which quantity is decidedly not king.”

Consider offering flexibility to your employees.

According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), workplace flexibility can enable effective return-to-work for employees on maternity, family, medical, or disability leave, as well as returning veterans. Companies that offer flexibility find that it expands the recruitment of diverse employees – particularly single parents – and employees with disabilities. Flexible schedules also reduce absenteeism, improve employees’ health, and increase the retention of productive employees.

Employees who have even a small degree of flexibility in when and where work got done also had significantly greater job satisfaction, stronger commitment to the job, and higher levels of engagement with the company, as well as significantly lower levels of stress. Sounds good, right?

Be intentional in creating gender-inclusive options, like bathrooms, health care, and dress codes.

If you’re heterosexual and white and male, the modern office was designed for you.

The 9-to-5 schedule really only functions if you assume that any family responsibilities are being taken care of by a stay-at-home (female) partner. We have underlying, biased expectations that the women in the office will do the “office housework.” The language of business – businessman, salesman – and the adjectives we use to describe women and people of color in some roles – “female engineer,” “black accountant” – as if the descriptor is needed to explain how they deviate from the norm, clearly illustrates who “belongs” at work.

However, cues in the physical environment and policies can contribute to every employee’s feelings of belonging. Employers should consider providing gender-inclusive bathrooms (e.g., facilities that are not designated “men” or “women” but are available for anyone of any gender to use). At Boly:Welch, we offer employees a lactation suite and a homework room for kids out of school. Health care benefits should be open to same-sex spouses and partners, include reassignment surgery coverage, and offer parental leave vs. just maternity leave. Dress codes shouldn’t police what employees wear because of an outdated, sexist, and (especially when it comes to hairstyles like afros and locs) racist approach to “professional attire.”

It doesn’t take a lot to make people feel welcome, but we do need to challenge the default workplace settings.

Provide education around and try to use inclusive language.

Language can be incredibly powerful, and it also has a history of leaving a lot of people out. For example, think about the term “hey guys,” when there are women in the room. It seems innocuous, but if you’re the only woman in a room full of male coworkers, doesn’t it sound nice to hear, “hey everyone?” and have the default of humanity not be male?

Language does matter. Why do we use phrases like “male nurse” or “female doctor”? Why doesn’t that feel weird? Shouldn’t it feel strange to label a woman in a leadership position “bossy” when we’d call a man “assertive?” Can we stop calling people of color “minorities,” when they’ll comprise more than half of the nation’s population by 2040? Doesn’t “underrepresented” seem a bit more accurate?

A lot of our language choices are embedded and habitual. To create an environment where people feel welcome and included (e.g., using preferred pronouns), it’s going to take a bit of effort to consider the implications of the words and phrases we didn’t even realize we need to challenge. And this isn’t an effort to “be PC” – there is a strong correlation between gendered grammar and sexism.

Helpfully, there is lots of great information out there, including this comprehensive guide.

Offer formal mentoring to all employees, but be intentional about giving underrepresented groups access to information and key relationships that will make them successful.

Mentoring is an incredible way for all employees to engage and grow in an organization. And it’s also a great way to create more diverse leadership: a Harvard Business Review study found that formal mentoring programs within organizations boosted representation of women and people of color (POC) in management on average by 9 to 24 percent.

However, these studies also show that while white males tend to find mentors through their own social networks and can benefit from an informal structure, underrepresented groups and women are less likely to get a mentor through an informal program, so it’s important for the program to be formalized.

One reason, according to some research, is that white male executives aren’t comfortable reaching out informally to young women and underrepresented groups. But if they’re assigned a mentee in a formal program, they’re usually very ready to help.

Ask employees what they need.

It’s easy to assume we know what’s best for our employees, based on our own experiences and insights, but you know what happens when you assume things.

We’re all different. The employee who thrives with clear instructions needs different management than the employee who needs space and autonomy to do their best work. The employee with dependents needs different benefits than the employee nearing retirement. The employee who is new to your company experiences it in a very different way than a long-term employee.

So instead of assuming you know what works for your employees, ask them what they need! You can use surveys, focus groups, empathy mapping, shadowing, and interviews – whatever you need to develop a clear picture of what your employees need to be successful in your organization.

This is by no means an complete list of all of the inclusive practices out there. But, it might be a good place to start for a company to begin to benefit from the “curb cut effect” of inclusion.