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How DEI Efforts Lead to Better Employee Retention

How DEI Efforts Lead to Better Employee Retention

Steve Heisler

illustration of flowers being watered by watering can

In a successful, DEI-friendly workplace, new hires who become part of the solution are less likely to leave 

What Is DEI Retention?

Adjusting hiring procedures with an eye toward diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a great first step toward greater workforce representation. But the journey will conclude early if new, diverse hires are making a quick exit from the company when the work environment fails to support them or turns hostile. 

The reason for leaving may not be overt. In late 2019, The Center for Talent Innovation (now Coqual) found that only 31% of Black employees had access to senior leadership, compared to 44% of white employees. Plus, 19% of Black employees don’t see someone of their own race making it to a management-level position, compared to 3% of white employees. The center also found that one in three Black employees intended to leave their current job within two years as compared to roughly one in four white employees. 

DEI retention issues can manifest on day one of a person’s employment. For example, onboarding policies might not take into account what it’s like to be the only person of a race or ethnicity in the office, or employees might not yet know what constitutes a microaggression. Perhaps senior leaders haven’t enacted any tangible DEI initiatives after sending a press release in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. 


Lisa Ong, an executive coach specializing in DEI who runs the consultancy Wishing Out Loud, likens it to planting seeds in the sand, expecting them to thrive. 

“You’ve got to look at your soil,” she says. “What are you doing to prepare the soil for all this amazing talent you’re bringing in? Otherwise, you’re going to start blaming the seed when they fail, and I think you need to look at the farmer.” 

Even though a company may have the best of intentions, the secret to retention through a DEI lens, Ong says, is to avoid placing undo pressure on the new employee to succeed in a vacuum: Do the work before they start. 

Why Is It Important?

A diverse and inclusive workforce benefits productivity and ROI, but it also contributes to a happy and healthy work environment. Catalyst, a non-profit that works with companies on issues related to inclusion and gender disparity, surveyed 2,100 employees in 2019 and found positive experiences of inclusion explained 49% of team problem-solving abilities, 35% of work engagement and 20% of intent to stay at the organization. 

But the pandemic may be impacting a company’s ability to focus on DEI engagement. Glassdoor conducted a survey in late July and found that DEI-related postings declined almost 70%—double the rate of overall job posts—between March and June. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, that number rebounded 55% between June and July—which, while promising, is still at a level 38% lower than pre-pandemic, according to Glassdoor. With fewer such positions available or filled, the less likely a company is to have someone on staff to help with DEI efforts. 

Donald Thompson, co-founder of the DEI training and certification agency The Diversity Movement, says that potential hires of color will research where a company stands on the principles of DEI. But even if an organization is still in the early stages of increasing representation in its staff, Thompson says that inviting a new hire of color into the company-wide conversation on the topic can entice talent to stay for the long haul. 

“You don’t have to be apologetic about where you are: Talk to new employees about where you’re headed, what you’re doing, what suggestions they may have—bring them into the fold,” Thompson says. “The reason this employee elected to give your organization a shot—after looking at a website that might not show inclusion in the employee base—[is because] they still love the opportunity. The pay was fair and the opportunity for advancement was something they were excited about.” 

Laying the Groundwork

A strong retention plan begins with a supportive onboarding. Before the new employee has their first day, take them to lunch. Ong suggests that the manager share a bit about themselves that extends beyond where they went to school or where they live. They can then ask the new employee to do the same, demonstrating a sincere interest in the candidate’s full range of experiences, not just surface-level facts that could be pulled from LinkedIn. 

Words from senior leadership can have a profound effect at this time. Ong once worked with a client who said the deciding factor in taking a new job, despite the company’s lack of diversity, was when the CEO reached out personally for a 15-minute call, conveying genuine excitement about the distinct perspective and skillset they would be bringing to the company. The connection reinforced that the new hire would maintain a direct line to management. 

Ong also suggests immediately ingratiating new hires with the rest of the team. “Roll out the red carpet; treat them like they’re the CEO’s kid,” she says. Set up a few lunches and coffee meetings with employees with whom they will be working closely. Ensure the new hire knows exactly who supports and oversees their projects and pair them with colleagues at their same level who can clear up important logistical concerns. This step is of paramount importance during COVID, as many new employees aren’t able to casually connect with colleagues in an office setting. 

Once the job begins in earnest, ensure that access to management and regular check-ins continue. Ong suggests starting a weekly schedule of meetings where managers can reinforce a company’s openness to change and course-correct any concerns that may arise. 

But most importantly, get them working. “When I’ve gone to work and I’ve been the only [person of color] in the room—I’m not thinking about that 100% of the day,” Thompson says. “I’m trying to do a good job. I’m trying to be thought of well by my boss and my manager. It’s equally as important in those first handful of assignments that the team supports them well. … Everybody feels better when they’re doing work that’s appreciated and matters.” 

Small Changes Along the Way

That’s not to say issues will never arise. Folks at the company may have little to no experience working with people who look nothing like them and have different life experiences. They may be unaware that the language they use can be construed as offensive, or that certain behaviors can be interpreted as microaggressions. 

Odds are, Ong says, the offending party has no idea their words are causing others distress and will rectify the issue immediately. She encourages managers to tackle these issues right away to reduce the likelihood that this employee might unintentionally hurt someone else. Approach the conversation from a place of empathy, not malice. 

If the issue extends beyond the scope of what a manager can handle, don’t be afraid to ask for help in addressing conflicts related to DEI. Thompson emphasizes this as an opportune time to bring in outside professionals and learn how to conduct difficult conversations about race in the workplace and establish a common language around diversity—topics such as what true equity looks like and what constitutes a microaggression. 

It’s impossible to mitigate every issue and there may come a time when the new hire expresses frustration with the company and is ready to leave. Before declaring DEI retention initiatives a failure, Thompson invites managers to investigate further. “It’s very important in those moments to learn why,” he says “They’re usually things you can handle quickly, things that are long term and then some things that are baggage from the past that you can’t really do anything about. You’ve got to understand the difference in those three buckets and work accordingly.” 

Take care of any short-term issues right away. If the problem is something that has existed long term or it’s rooted in a negative experience from a new hire’s previous job, Thompson recommends once again inviting the employee in on constructing a solution, even if the issue has nothing to do with DEI. 

Thompson shares this language to use: “Here are some of the things that are examples of where the company is today,” he says. “Here are some of the initiatives of where we’re trying to go in the future. And depending on your tolerance level, you can find a new home, or you can be a part of helping us get there.” 

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at