(Photo by Wundervisuals/iStock by Getty Images)

To appreciate the strength of a company’s diversity initiatives, it helps to look at employee retention, which is often a reflection of culture. Many companies face the “leaky-bucket problem.” They can recruit and hire diverse talent, but their attrition rate betrays an internal culture that doesn’t entice employees to stay. In one door, out the other.

So how do companies create “sticky” workplaces? How can structural bias and personal bias be mitigated to foster an inclusive space for all–one that makes talent not just want to stay, but able to thrive too?

To explore answers to those questions, Emily Nordquist, senior program manager at the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise & Responsibility at Loyola University Chicagomoderated a conversation among experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at From Day One’s recent virtual conference, “Diversity: How Employers Can Match Words With Deeds.”

Some companies, like Schneider Electric, a multinational with more than 135,000 employees, are years into thinking about inclusion and belonging at work. Sonali Satpathy, Schneider’s VP of DEI and well-being, said inclusion has long been a part of her company’s mission and internal work. The core, she said, is about asking, “How do we hardwire this? How do you hardwire processes, programs, systems for inclusion? And how do you build equity into the system?”

Others, like the data-management company NetApp, founded in 1992, acknowledge being in the beginning stages of their DEI plans. “We’re early in our journey now,” said Gerri Mason Hall, a NetApp VP. “I’m leading diversity, inclusion, and belonging. We’re very intentional in this choice of title,” she said. “It’s a reflection of our strategy. We’re relatively new, so it’s a multi-year plan. My year-one plan is talent first, and it is absolutely doubling and tripling down on the increased representation of Black and Latinx [employees], especially because we are a cloud-led, data-centric software company and our strategy is informed by our data, and our data tells us what we have to do better.”

Inclusion Should Be Consistent

No matter the company size and history, the panelists agreed that inclusion practices must be applied consistently. Satpathy shared the example of establishing universal minimum standards. She noticed that among Schneider’s global workforce, parental-leave policy varied widely by country, compliant with local laws, “at best,” she said. “We wanted to go above and beyond that.” The company put in place a global family-leave policy, so caregivers of all kinds–not just parents–can take the time they need. “As a global company, we have to put in minimum standards. We say that if you work for Schneider Electric, no matter where in the world, you have access to X, Y, and  Z.” The company is applying the same idea of global minimum standards to address the problem of pay equity, she said.

Make It a Multi-level Mandate

To make inclusion happen, there needs to be organizational-level work and individual-level work, panelists said. Both have to exist and the two must work together. Organizational-level work occurs when companies institute policies and programs to support and advance marginalized communities. Examples: pay-equity rules, clear criteria for promotions and advancement, and Schneider’s global-minimum family leave.

Speaking on employee retention, top row from left: Sonali Satpathy of Schneider Electric, Emily Nordquist of the Loyola University Chicago, and Desiree Booker of ColorVizion Lab. Bottom row, from left: Jonathan Mayes of Albertsons Companies, Larry Baker of LCW, and Gerri Mason Hall of NetApp (Image by From Day One)

Individual contributions, on the other hand, begin with the question, What can you contribute to inclusion? Jonathan Mayes, SVP and chief diversity officer at the food-and-drug retailer Albertsons Companies, said his team has developed content they call Leading with Inclusion. “It’s an opportunity for different voices not heard from enough in Corporate America to talk about a day in the life.” Having established awareness of their lived experience, they prompt action from individuals. “What are you going to do?” they ask. “How can you be an ally? For folks who have experienced discrimination time and time again, what are you doing to do about it?”

Larry Baker, a consultant at LCW, a firm that offers training and expertise in cultural competence and organizational effectiveness, encourages individual managers to come up with accountability structures or “diversity action plans” to make this happen. This is how companies can influence individual work with organizational work. “What gets rewarded gets repeated,” he said. “So if there aren’t strategies in place that are rewarding these managers and leaders that are leading us to the new normal, if you will, they’re going to revert back to what got them the rewards prior to this initiative.”

Adding EQ to the Equation

Desiree Booker, founder and CEO of the diversity recruiting and coaching firm ColorVizion Lab, said emotional intelligence is a core competency that leaders must have in order for individual work to be effective. This is how individual contributions can influence organizational work. “I think having high emotional intelligence could really mitigate some of the pitfalls that we see happening when it comes to leadership,” she said, adding that EQ helps leaders “to leverage the strengths of different people on your teams.”

Booker recalled missteps that could have been avoided with some emotional intelligence. For example, she was coaching an employee at a company where management asked him to serve on a panel to talk about his Black-at-work experience, Booker said. “But he’s very uncomfortable being thrust into the spotlight and saying, ‘Hey, I’m Black and this is what it feels like to work in Corporate America as a Black individual.’ And the way it was phrased to him was, ‘We would really love for you to do this. It would be great to have you participate in this.’ However, there just wasn’t the awareness there to give him the choice.”

Bring on the Data Too

Evaluating the effectiveness of inclusion work should be both quantitative and qualitative, the panelists asserted. “First and foremost,” NetApp’s Hall said, “we’re committed to being continuous learners. So we’ll try something, we’ll measure it and look at the data and what it tells us, and then we’ll tweak it if we need to.” She said employers should approach it like any other key performance indicator (KPI), “reviewing your data on a regular basis and changing course as needed.”

“Make strategic organizational decisions based on data,” said Booker. “Use the data to develop a North Star and to track your progress. And then I would also say to get feedback continuously from your employees.” Quantitative measures might include change in employee attrition, change in promotion rates, or asking employees to rate their sense of belonging.

But even with data to support your initiatives, inclusion work requires continuous tending to bring about those soft changes that are harder to quantify, changes that individual employees are experiencing, like whether they feel comfortable raising their hand for new opportunities, talking about their mental health, or reporting discrimination.

Can managers be trained to be inclusive? To some degree, but it’s not a fix-it-and-forget-it solution. Instead, it requires a daily commitment to change, said Hall. “Training is important. You have new leaders coming in, they don’t know how to lead inclusively. Sometimes they’re early in career and they need to build that muscle,” she said. “That’s the continuing work, that’s the day-to-day, that’s the ongoing conversations and the interventions.”

Nordquist, the moderator, observed that this work is nuanced and will naturally create tension. “When you have a diversity of perspective in that room, it’s naturally going to be more tense,” she said. “People are going to say, ‘Hey, Jonathan, you know I think you’re great, but I actually see it this way.’ Or ‘Sonali, I actually want to challenge you on that, given my lived experiences.’ There is this real need to be able to navigate that tension and lean into the fact that not everyone’s going to be on the same page with this work, and that’s OK, and to get comfortable with that feeling.” Satpathy concurred with that idea: “Progress over perfection,” she said.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.