Expanding your diversity strategy to include equity and inclusion

Practical considerations for improved engagement and retention of underrepresented groups

Perception and reality – A common gap in diversity, equity, and inclusion

Corporate law departments have made great strides toward better diversifying their legal and operations staff. Efforts have increased to address bias in recruiting; explore new talent pools with diverse candidates; proactively market to colleges, universities, and law schools with underrepresented groups; and track success against organizational goals.

While diversity-focused recruiting attracts new candidates from different backgrounds, races, and ethnicities, and diverse hiring practices are critical toward any diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy, your diversity program may end without successful efforts to engage these diverse employees.

Holding networking functions and other activities geared toward specific groups are common engagement initiatives since they are effective opportunities to help individuals with common interests and backgrounds connect. Establishing an authentic culture that supports diversity requires a thorough assessment of your recruiting and retention efforts.

Strong recruiting efforts of underrepresented groups without equitable and inclusive opportunities to retain them will lead to high attrition rates in these groups. Alternatively, creating inclusive and equitable career opportunities without advancing your diverse recruiting efforts leads to a lot of activities for a small representative of people.

Instead, an effective DEI strategy involves ensuring that employees feel engaged and respected at work, have equal opportunities for advancement, and are visible in leadership roles. Reaching a truly DEI-friendly culture requires listening to underrepresented employees, taking their concerns seriously, and working to address them. When employees experience change as a result of sharing their voices, you’ve demonstrated that your commitment to change is real.

If your legal department has a sizeable gap between leadership’s perception of DEI success and the reality of your employees' experience, keep reading for three practical approaches to activate meaningful change.

Create safe spaces for dialog

Turnover rates are a good measure of how effective a law department’s DEI strategy is at engaging underrepresented employees. If an in-house team has increased its percentage of diverse hires but also sees growing attrition rates among its diverse employee population, it’s a strong indicator that employees are not feeling valued.

An executive study by Korn Ferry in 2015 found that a large majority of respondents (84%) agreed that a lack of attention to diversity and inclusion contributed to employee turnover. Only 56% believed their organization’s diversity programs were enhancing employee retention.

Training programs as a unifier. To improve retention of diverse employees, in-house teams should re-examine their current DEI training efforts. Evaluate the tone your mandatory training programs take and test it among a sample of employees of all backgrounds to determine if there are opportunities to enhance the message. Taking a defensive approach that implies training is needed to protect the organization should be reviewed.

As The Harvard Business Review noted when surveying DEI programs, “threats, or ‘negative incentives,’ don’t win converts. Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance — and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.” Further, this does nothing to help diverse employees feel authentically welcome in the company. If anything, they may believe their needs and concerns are considered a “problem” that needs to be solved.

Open dialog for expanded perspectives. Training should instead emphasize positive aspects of DEI — how everyone in the department or organization benefits from having a greater range of cultural experiences and perspectives.

Established affinity groups, networking events, and volunteer opportunities unify employees around a common interest or goal. These informal actions encourage safe and open dialog, expanding an understanding of the challenges facing diverse groups.

Rethink mentorship

Good mentorship programs also make establishing a diverse culture more sustainable. A study in the American Sociological Review found that mentoring increased minority representation among managers in the workplace by roughly 9%-24%.

Traditional mentoring methods — where a veteran lawyer serves as the “ruling party” in the relationship — may alienate those from diverse backgrounds. Consider alternative mentorship structures to offer a more equitable give and take between mentor and mentee.

Reverse mentoring. Consider “reverse mentoring,” where more experienced lawyers pair with associates, but the mentorship is mutually beneficial. The junior attorney mentors the senior lawyer in areas with which the latter is less familiar. This way, employees from diverse backgrounds can feel they’re contributing to the relationship and not being instructed in how to conform. As expected, when both parties represent the same diverse group, the relationship is more effective for the mentee or associate.

Reverse mentoring may pave the way for safe, candid dialog about how the company is doing with DEI efforts. An employee who is comfortable in their mentor relationship may provide valuable insights into how effective processes are in reality.

Affinity groups. When mentor programs expand beyond one on one into larger diversity-focused groups, the affinity group program is born. This is where a number of employees from different backgrounds meet regularly to share experiences, emphasizing equality of opportunity and an inclusive approach to varying perspectives. Newer lawyers can voice their concerns to established ones, while also being able to network with others from their respective groups.

Thomson Reuters currently supports eight unique networks. Though each Business Resource Group is focused on a targeted group of employees, such as Pride at Work, Disability Employee Network, and Women at Thomson Reuters, all employees are free to join any group as an affiliated member or as an ally in support.

Review career advancement and project assignments

Perhaps the most substantial way to have DEI efforts take root is to ensure that minority employees get access to high-visibility projects, are promoted at the same rates as their non-minority counterparts, and that a law department’s leadership reflects the level of diversity that it claims to want in its staff.

Uncovering bias. Sociologist Stephen Benard and Professor Stephanie Creary conducted experiments with more than 400 people with managerial experience. Managers were asked to make bonus, promotion, and termination recommendations for hypothetical employees based on annual performance.

For managers who were told their hypothetical company’s promotions should be based entirely on employee performance, male employees usually got rewarded more than female employees in the same job — in one set of experiments, men were given bonuses that were higher, on average, by 12%. Benard and Creary theorized that when managers believe their company is meritocratic, “they may become less vigilant about their individual actions, leading them to unintentionally make biased decisions.”

Overcoming bias

Review by committee. A performance reward committee — that includes leadership, employees, and DEI officials — should monitor and modify promotional and reward decisions if the committee believes managers have not been fair.

Project assignments. By offering project assignments to preferred colleagues or staff with whom you have worked, you may alienate and devalue others who also desire opportunities to make meaningful contributions. Innovation is born from unique backgrounds and perspectives. Expanding opportunities to those you may not have worked with in the past may help a colleague broaden their experience and feel valued.

Adopting a DEI strategy is no longer the work of progressive law departments. Today, it’s an expected thread in the fabric of any organization’s culture, but getting it right — where it’s authentic and real — takes perseverance, safety, vulnerability, and an unwavering commitment from everyone in the organization.

Learn from your existing underrepresented groups by listening to their experiences and begin your diversity, equity, and inclusion change strategy with equitable and inclusive best practices. Then watch the gap between perception and reality shrink organically.

Improve retention of your underrepresented staff

Practical Law has over 1,300 DEI-focused resources keeping you ahead of diversity recruiting and retention strategies