Published by Eric Gregg - 09/27/21

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Continuing the Conversation, Part 2

In Part 1 of our 2-part blog series focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Continuing the Conversation, I shared some of the latest data that ClearlyRated has published about the state of DEI in staffing. But what to do with this information? That’s where the three panelists from our recent American Staffing Association webinar (DeLibra Wesley, CEO and Founder of National Recruiting Consultants; Leslie Vickrey, CEO and Founder of ClearEdge Marketing; and Robin Mee, President and Founder of Mee Derby) bring the full weight of their perspectives and experience. 

Below, I’ve summarized seven strategies shared by our panelists for how organizations of every shape, size, and industry can begin to make real organizational progress towards diversity, equity, and inclusion.

butterfly image showing DEI transformation
Lessons from the Field: 7 Strategies for Making Real Organizational Change

  1. Focus your DEI efforts internally first
  2. Make inclusiveness a priority
  3. Hire outside the box
  4. Know your culture and what makes for a “culture fit”
  5. Understand what drives the gender pay gap and how to root it out at your firm
  6. Institutionalize allyship
  7. Treat DEI as a business imperative
1. Focus your DEI efforts internally first

When it comes to DEI, it may feel urgently important for your firm to make a public statement. And that’s good—in order for the tidal changes that are necessary to occur, we must all invest in publicly acknowledging and rectifying the situation. But the work must start from within. 

One of the most gripping examples that our panelists gave of DEI efforts gone wrong was the story of Black professionals in the tech industry speaking out against what is described as “diversity theater.”

Our panelist Leslie Vickrey (CEO and Founder of ClearEdge Marketing) shared an article published by Wired Magazine that highlights a glaring disconnect between how some companies publicly and privately address calls for equity and fairness.

The uncomfortable reality highlighted in this article is not limited to the tech industry. Organizations across the country are pledging money and committing to rectifying internal bias while their existing employees continue to face ongoing discrimination in the workplace and, in many cases, are forced to remain silent on issues of social and racial justice. Leslie points out just how harmful these performative actions can be: 

“Businesses that gloss over their own internal dynamics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion risk dramatically eroding trust with their employees. It can be tempting to change your logo during Pride Month or Black History Month, or to pledge support on Women’s Pay Day—but these are one-off actions, and they can really backfire when the internal and external messages don’t align. Employees will be the first to notice when your corporate actions don’t match your rhetoric. That’s not a recipe for attracting a diverse team.”

Before you join the chorus, your company must find its authentic voice on the issue. For more ideas about how to get started from within, check out my recent blog post covering 3 Critical Steps for Addressing Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Your Firm.

2. Make inclusiveness a priority

Panelist DeLibra Wesley (CEO and Founder of National Recruiting Consultants) discussed how her approach to helping organizations build towards diversity, equity, and inclusion has shifted over time. 

These days, DeLibra says, “My goal out of the gate is to work towards helping companies prioritize inclusiveness in both their policies and cultural practices. I want to help businesses understand that there is a true benefit to nobody feeling left out, nobody feeling unsupported. We need to be thinking about how to support folks who have been historically underserved by employers in corporate America. I’m talking caregivers and parents, people who have experienced the loss of a loved one, folks with disabilities. There are so many levers we can pull, from remote work and flexible scheduling to more robust leave policies; we truly have the opportunity to transform the corporate culture towards empathy and inclusion.”

Beyond being brave enough to highlight an issue that most of us would rather skirt around, I want to acknowledge that the latest research suggests that DeLibra’s prioritization of inclusive practices and cultural norms is SPOT ON when it comes to addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce. The data is especially convincing when we look along gender lines (remember that, though women make up roughly ⅔rds of the workforce in the staffing industry, fewer than 1 in 3 executive roles are held by women).

Robin Mee (President and Founder of Mee Derby), introduced us to a survey that TrueBlue (a leading staffing, recruiting, and workforce management solutions provider) conducted to uncover why women weren’t being promoted into executive roles within the organization. What they found is that many women were dropping out of the career path after they reached management because they weren’t sure they could have a family and continue to advance in their career (or their company) and do both well.

“Nobody should have to choose between having a family and having a career. Flexibility is key. The pandemic has forced many companies who were previously opposed to remote officing to be predictive and flexible with people working from home. If we can achieve remote teams, we are giving women so much more flexibility than they’ve ever had before.”

Covid-19 has set women in the workplace back decades, but some of the outcomes from the pandemic (like increased flexibility and remote work) could infrastructurally improve and accelerate the access that women have to roles and advancement in the workplace going forward. But we must not lose this moment – consider how your business can center inclusiveness as you continue to design and evolve your “new normal”.

3. Hire outside the box

Another hot topic that was discussed on the panel was the question of hiring and retaining underrepresented (and specifically BIPOC) employees. In an industry that’s underrepresented in this area, particularly with Black and Hispanic professionals, Robin Mee provided some helpful guidance. 

“We have to think bigger when it comes to recruiting talent. There are age-old strategies, like incentivizing referrals from internal employees for new talent, that maintain the status quo—if you know and are liked by someone internally, then your chances of being hired are much greater. But guess what? Practices like these are how we got here in the first place! I’m not saying that referrals and references shouldn’t play a role in assessing an applicant, but what if you could re-allocate those resources towards an entirely untapped network of individuals? How could you truly diversify the sources by which you are inviting talent to consider applying for a career with your business?” 

Two specific ideas that Robin has for us are to:

  • Take another look at your college recruiting program (if you have one). How could you diversify the institutions that you’re working with to source talent? Perhaps you could de-prioritize private institutions? Or invest more to recruit at schools where you’re specifically more likely to find talent that may be part of an underrepresented demographic at your firm? 
  • Actively look at (and seek out candidates) outside of your industry. Robin spoke specifically about the staffing industry, though I suspect this sentiment applies much more broadly: “There aren’t enough staffing industry professionals to go around, and we know there’s not much diversity in the industry. To hire outside of the industry, you’ve got to think outside the box. Do you really need a candidate with that specific experience or degree? Or do you need someone with demonstrated skills and capabilities? What hiring practices can you build to search for and validate those skills and capabilities rather than leaning on industry experience or degrees alone?”

Robin was also very clear about the fact that any shift in hiring for a more diverse workforce must be a priority for the business, and must be met with intentional, consistent effort if it is ever going to have a shot at making lasting change. 

“If you really want to make progress, you must insist on diversity with every slate of candidates that are brought in for every internal position. The definition of diversity might shift for every hire or the given team that a hire is being made for. What does that team, specifically, need? What are they missing? Being intentional and prioritizing the goal of bringing forth a diverse set of candidates for every position is absolutely critical.”

4. Know your culture and, more specifically, what makes for a “culture fit”

During the presentation, our panel fielded a question from the audience: “When prioritizing hiring a diverse workforce, how do you deal with comments from the hiring committee that a candidate is ‘not a culture fit?’”

DeLibra’s response: “In my career as a recruiter, I was trained to always ask questions. ‘So this candidate is not a culture fit? Tell me why. Tell me about your culture and what it is about your culture that’s so different so that I can help you recruit better.’ In my experience, “culture fit” issues are usually ageism—‘I don’t want to hire this person because they are in an age group that I’m not used to working with.’ Ageism is hiring discrimination, and as an industry it’s critical that staffing and recruiting firms build systems and processes that protect themselves and their clients from this discriminatory practice.”

Robin also had some very clear insights on this topic: “Ageism is a real hot button issue for me. We see more discrimination around age than any other area when working with our clients. Only 6% of people that are working in the staffing industry are over 56 years old. That puts it in a very stark light, a snapshot we should all be a bit horrified about. We have to ask a lot of questions and ask them up front so that we can understand the skills and attributes that are most important. One common issue we find is when businesses are looking for candidates with some specific amount of experience—say 5-8 years’ experience. That’s a clear marker for age, and it’s antithetical to our task of presenting every candidate we can find that is qualified and interested in the role.”

Leslie offered up a systems-level approach for combating the “culture fit” issue: “Has your company done the work to set the tone for what your culture is? Having a clear way to talk about company culture, and ensuring that everyone on your team understands how to think about and talk about company culture, can be really helpful for empowering your team in the hiring process while also fortifying against discriminatory practices. We are seeing a lot of companies deep dive on who they really are and investing in really understanding and documenting core values. Once you have those values clarified, you can begin to reorient your entire recruiting strategy around those values, and when an ambiguous comment about ‘culture fit’ inevitably arises, you can ask the person making that observation to be more specific. Which of our company values, specifically, do you find that this candidate does not align with and why?” 

5. Understand what drives the gender pay gap and how to root it out at your firm

We know there is a gender pay gap in staffing (as well as across the general workforce). But what might be driving this dynamic? 

Robin suggests that salary discussions at the start of an employment process play a major role: “Historically, it was common practice for companies to ask about compensation history before making an offer or even advancing a candidate through the hiring process. This practice intrinsically put women at a disadvantage, because the gender pay gap, though egregious now, has historically been much worse. So if the female candidate has a lower salary history, she can be made a lower offer and theoretically still be willing to take the position. Salary bands are now leveling the playing field, and as of 2017 employers are no longer allowed to ask about compensation history until after an offer is made. We have to educate, and educate our friends and colleagues and kids that when they get asked questions about compensation it is their right to not answer that question and how to navigate that. We need to consult women on the process of negotiating, up front, for an amount that another professional (presumably male) would be able to secure for himself in that hiring process.”

DeLibra provides another layer of context to what may be driving the gender pay gap: “I have seen many businesses with an internal culture of talent acquisition teams being praised for closing someone at a lower amount. As an industry we need to start praising for something different, not for low balling, but for involving them in the equity discussion, using measures that pay people for experience and skills not just because they didn’t know to ask for more. I’ve seen examples of women making $30k less than their counterparts yet over-performing those individuals. Over 5 years that’s $150k that women didn’t have available in their household. We should be incentivizing talent acquisition teams to find ways to make hiring and compensation rates fair and equitable. Companies need to pay people what they’re worth.”

Career Advancement Disparity

Beyond a difference in pay within a set of roles, the research also demonstrates a lack of career parity: women are not in the same position to earn wages because they’re not being considered for higher level roles. Leslie had some unique insights to share about the dynamics at play with career advancement and earning potential for female professionals: 

“We have a huge gap in our industry when it comes to representation in leadership. We have a lot of women in our industry who have made it up the ladder, then they stop at the C Suite. Like many women, I came up in the industry on a team that had no P&L responsibility. And, looking around, a lot of my female peers are in the same boat. Positions that have been more approachable for women (like HR and Marketing) are often considered “overhead” positions, and because they lack P&L responsibility the women who occupy those positions have less access to the experience of what it takes to run a company. So, when opportunities to advance to executive positions open up, they are perceived as less qualified than counterparts who have managed P&L. A lot of my thinking on this topic has been informed by a discussion I had with Tammy Browning, current SVP and President at Kelly OCG on the ClearEdge podcast. Tammy shared that, within her company they are specifically training on P&L financials so that all managers can gain access to the skills and experience of operating a company. Tammy’s goal is to help close the gap on gender when it comes to succession planning. The more we can cross train in these functions and different areas, the more we can raise women and minorities up.”

Beyond access to direct experience with P&L, Robin points out what many of us have suspected for some time but that recent research has proven beyond a doubt: “Men are hired for potential and women are hired for experience—especially when it comes to leadership positions. Hiring for potential is critical, and we need to be doing everything to get out of our own way to give women the same access to those opportunities. That’s where we come back to flexible work arrangements, support for remote work and travel, and taking strides to provide the type of leadership environment that makes it clear that women do actually belong there.” 

Each of our panelists have given us a great deal to think about (and address) within our own internal organizations. But if you need a bit more inspiration on the topic of pay equity, look no further than Salesforce. This 57,000-person organization is in its sixth year of auditing its compensation practices to ensure equal pay at all levels and across all teams. Each year they report out on their findings, and what action they are taking to rectify the pay gap issue to make their workforce a more inclusive and equitable place for all of their employees.

6. Institutionalize allyship

A common theme heard among the panelists was the critical role that mentors, sponsors, and allies have to play in the advancement of folks who are typically underrepresented in the workplace. 

DeLibra says: “As a BIPOC professional, I have experienced and lived through many of the struggles that we are trying to address with these DEI efforts. I have also seen first-hand what a difference it has made for me to have someone in my organization value my talent enough to “block” while I’m being “tackled” so that I can keep on the course and keep doing great work. The role of the advocate, ally, or sponsor is crucial to opening new doors for historically underrepresented professionals. That person, ideally a person who is ‘in the room where it happens,’ is speaking on your behalf and advocating for your work behind closed doors and in the meetings that you don’t yet have access to. I won’t lie, it’s rare to find those people within an organization, especially in leadership positions. So, to my fellow business leaders, make this an active effort! Incentivize yourself and your peers to find the folks who are hungry but might not have access to opportunities, and work with them to build a path forward. Stand up for them behind closed doors. Be an ally! To my fellow BIPOC professionals, find an ally. Find a way to hook onto someone who can help your career, who can block for you while you’re being tackled.”

Leslie spoke about her perspective on leveraging her own power to be an ally: “There are so many things I could say about being an ally. But it’s really pretty simple: if you are in a position of power, use it. Use your voice and do something. Think about all of the power that even a managerial position holds: as a manager you can impact someone’s pay, title, and upward mobility. Harness that power to help those who are fighting an uphill battle for representation and pay! If you are on a board and you know there are open positions, you’re in a position of power to add diversity to your board. If you’re forming a board or being asked for board recommendations, put people up in those roles, be an ally. For speaking engagements, make introductions and connections to empower women and minorities. Use every waking moment and every position of power that you inhabit to create opportunities for others.”

What strikes me hearing these thoughts from DeLibra and Leslie, is just how much opportunity for allyship exists, inherently, within corporate structures. What would it look like to formalize that a bit more? To literally incentivize members of leadership to prioritize the advancement of women and minorities in the workplace? Allyship, and institutionalizing it, provides us with a significant opportunity to address issues related to DEI head-on in our individual places of work.

7. Treat DEI as a business imperative

Last, but certainly not least, I want to highlight an overarching call that all three of our panelists made throughout the webinar… which is to give DEI the credence it deserves as a critical business imperative. 

All three of our experts spoke about the need for organizations to be intentional, purposeful, and direct with their DEI efforts. But I thought that Leslie summed it up nicely when she said: “DEI is more than a program or initiative, which has a connotation as being more short-term. It’s really a business imperative. Companies should not put out a statement if they’re not willing to do the work. Hiring a few people (to check the diversity box) is not a business imperative. And candidates and employees alike will see right through it. When DEI is little more than lip service, you risk hiring people and losing them, you risk developing a negative reputation, you risk losing any kind of referral pipeline. It’s really the opposite of what you’re trying to do.” 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you are here at the end of this blog post because you are invested in making DEI an integral component of your business. If you’d like to continue your research and hear more from this panel, I encourage you to keep up with the work that DeLibra, Robin, and Leslie are doing. Here are a few ways and places you can follow them:

And if you have any interest in learning about how ClearlyRated’s employee survey can support the DEI efforts at your firm, please feel free to contact us or check out the resources below.

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