As we recognize Black History Month and the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, it is a great time to take stock at our organizations and all we are doing to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environment. This is especially important as we continue to find ourselves in the midst of the “Great Resignation,” the phenomenon in which 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs at historic rates and left 10.6 million jobs vacant by the end of November 2021. While the causes are complex and varied, experts most often appear to point to the persisting global COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of adequate childcare, and the search for better work opportunities, both in terms of pay and duties. Against this backdrop, organizations everywhere would benefit from revisiting their retention strategies—especially through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
First and foremost, an effective retention strategy requires the recognition of two key facts: 1) Implicit bias is real. 2) Everybody has implicit bias. These facts simply reflect how our brains work to categorize all the stimuli presented to us in the course of a day. They need not trigger anyone’s defense mechanism or cause one to be weighed down with guilt. Nonetheless, our implicit bias can cause serious problems over time when those with privilege or power act on their implicit bias to the exclusion and/or mistreatment of historically underrepresented or disadvantaged groups.
The problem is affinity bias.
More specifically, it is affinity bias—i.e., our positive response to people who are most similar to us—that can undermine our organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. In fact, affinity bias “plays the biggest role” in preventing inclusivity in the workplace. See Kathleen B. Nalty, Going All-In on Diversity and Inclusion: The Law Firm Leader’s Playbook, at 26 (2d ed. 2019). Over time, without any intervention, affinity bias can perpetuate the status quo that your organization may be trying to change.
Affinity bias doesn’t always manifest in traditional work opportunities like a promotion. It can exist when a boss unwittingly spends more time mentoring and deepening their work relationship with an employee who shares their same background or identity compared with anyone else. It can exist when a boss invites that employee to more observation opportunities or regularly provides more constructive feedback to that employee on their performance. It can exist when a boss always seems to give some workers second chances or the space to take risks but doesn’t do the same for others. Meanwhile, another employee who is dissimilar to the boss and who is not receiving the same level of mentoring, feedback, or experience is—over time—losing out on opportunities to learn from their boss and becoming more and more detached from those in leadership. These are the workers more inclined to leave an organization.
The antidote to affinity bias is intentionality.
Intentionality requires both individual and collective work. It requires each person—in particular, leaders—to become self-aware of our own unconscious bias, notice when our automatic reactions might be the result of our implicit bias, and actively work against this bias when making decisions. This deliberate act of noticing then slowing down before we act is especially important when making employment-related decisions to hire, fire, promote, and manage employees.
Intentionality can help an organization root out and eliminate hidden barriers that affinity bias otherwise conceals. It can be the difference between leading a workforce that feels valued and engaged versus one that feels dispensable and nonessential. In today’s tight market, organizations simply cannot afford to allow affinity bias to rule their culture. Nor do workers appear willing to stay employed at jobs that fail to provide a path for meaningful growth and development as many resignations have been attributable to workers completely changing industries and career paths.
Here are three tips to boost your retention strategies through intentionality in your organization:
Representation matters. When seeking potential leadership for your organization, identify candidates who show promise from underrepresented backgrounds and mentor them. Recognize when experience that is not “traditional” to your industry may nonetheless reflect valuable soft skills that your organization needs. Train this talent to take on increasing responsibility and leadership roles within your organization. After all, leadership sets the tone of an organization, and organizations led by teams that are not only diverse but inclusive are more likely to innovate and thrive.
Implement clear policies for your employees that delineate how to meet performance goals and how to meet and exceed expectations. Strong and transparent policies also guard against liability for discrimination and/or workplace harassment claims.
Communicate these policies to your employees clearly and routinely. Explain to each employee how to implement the policy specific to their role in your organization. Let an employee know how to advance in their career development, how to earn raises and/or bonuses, and what would constitute poor performance and grounds for dismissal.
Make sure that policies are written. Have a lawyer review them for accuracy and legal compliance. And, importantly, have employees sign a statement acknowledging that the policy was explained to them and that they understood it. (Paper trails can be a real protection when personnel issues are involved.)
Practice recognizing your assumptions or automatic reactions to situations and people. If you notice a pattern of always responding positively to an employee who is, objectively, underperforming, interrogate whether affinity bias is in play. If you notice a pattern of always responding negatively to an employee who is, objectively, meeting expectations, ask yourself if implicit bias is coloring your attitude towards them.
When you recognize such bias, make a plan to work against it when you make a decision, especially if you occupy a leadership role. For example, do not make adverse personnel decisions alone and without documented evidence of performance problems or misconduct. Establish competency and behavioral based hiring processes with criteria that all participants have been trained to recognize. Keep track of the distribution of assignments to ensure all eligible employees are being considered fairly.
There are many tools that can help leaders practice intentionality in their individual organizations, and most can be easily translated across industries. For example, in 2003 the NFL famously instituted the “Rooney” rule requiring league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for all head coaching and general manager positions. By 2018, Amazon adopted a similar rule for all of its senior management openings. In 2017, lawyers embraced the Rooney Rule, through a program called the “Mansfield Rule,” named after the first woman admitted to practice law in America, Arabella Mansfield. Today, firms like Sands Anderson, participate in the newest iteration of this program, the Midsize Mansfield Rule, by committing to an applicant pool in which at least 30% of all lawyers considered for hire are from historically underrepresented populations. Law firms who were early adopters of the Mansfield Rule have already demonstrated statistically significant growth in the diversity of their leadership as a result.
Importantly, no tool is effective if the intentions behind your diversity and inclusion initiatives are not sincere. The recent race discrimination lawsuit filed against the NFL by former Dolphins head coach, Brian Flores, earlier this month, alleging that he was subjected to a “sham interview,” reminds us of the need for leadership to not only authentically embrace these measures, but also have systems of accountability in place.
In conclusion, to maximize your organization’s ability to retain talent, especially from underrepresented groups, use the powerful approach of intentionality to create a community and culture within your organization that is not only diverse, but also inclusive.