How to create a DEI program that unlocks employee retention

May 18th, 2021

By Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon is a writer for Kantola Training Solutions, a high-growth, eLearning company working to help end harassment, bullying, and discrimination in organizations through high-quality interactive online training, including the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) training course

Get ready, because 2021 is likely to bring a huge shake-up in the labor market. During the upheaval of the COVID pandemic, millions of people lost their jobs, and companies stopped hiring. Economic uncertainty led many to stay in the jobs they had. Now, as the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel comes into view, many are ready for a change. As a result, human resources experts are predicting a “turnover tsunami” once the economy starts to recover. 

And that could create new challenges for companies, given that the cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee's annual salary, according to data from Gallup. In fact, Gallup estimates that voluntary turnover costs U.S. businesses nearly $1 trillion each year. 

Voluntary turnover costs U.S. businesses nearly $1 trillion each year. - (Gallup)

Losing employees can mean broken relationships with customers, and lower productivity and morale among those who stay. It can also lead to even more turnover—not to mention the institutional knowledge that walks out the door when an employee leaves. 

So what can businesses do to not only get ahead of this impending shift, but to also encourage employees to stay regardless of market forces? One answer might surprise you: Invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. 

What causes turnover 

Employees leave for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t see a clear path for career growth, or they could earn more elsewhere. 

Burnout related to the stresses of the pandemic—working from home through school closures and lockdowns—is also leading many to want to make a change. Research from the Achievers Workforce Institute found that 46 percent of respondents reported that they feel “less connected to their company” since the start of the pandemic.

But a report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) points to another contributing factor: It estimates that $223 billion every five years is lost to turnover due to poor workplace culture and toxic work environments. And talent consultancy Korn Ferry found in an executive survey that “the vast majority of respondents (84 percent) say a lack of attention on diversity and inclusion contributes to employee turnover.” 

Talent consultancy Korn Ferry found in an executive survey that “the vast majority of respondents (84 percent) say a lack of attention on diversity and inclusion contributes to employee turnover.”

Why do poor workplace culture and lack of a commitment to DEI have such a negative effect? A dysfunctional culture can:

  • Make the company an unpleasant, stressful place to work.
  • Ignore and/or diminish the contributions of certain groups (e.g. based on gender, race, physical ability, etc.), making some people feel undervalued and stifling innovation and creativity.
  • Take a toll on employees’ mental health, leading to burnout.
  • Give employees no clear guidance on how to handle conflicts over perceived bias productively, allowing conflicts to escalate. 

When you examine the contributions that well-run DEI programs make, it’s easy to see how they help. DEI programs focus on creating cultures of inclusivity where all employees feel valued and comfortable bringing their whole selves to work. 

How DEI programs can help 

A strong company culture is more than a series of “here’s what we don’t do” rules. It’s a collection of mutually held beliefs about what the organization aspires to be. Effective DEI programs create a culture of mutual respect. 

They help identify biases and provide ways to overcome them, turning uncomfortable situations into learning experiences for everyone involved. They also allow people to feel comfortable being themselves so that they can contribute at their best.

In her article “To Retain Employees, Focus on Inclusion — Not Just Diversity,” author Karen Brown explains that, “Employees who differ from most of their colleagues in religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, and generation often hide important parts of themselves at work for fear of negative consequences.”

For example, she suggests, picture “a Muslim who prays in his car because he doesn’t want to advertise his religion, a mother who doesn’t put up pictures of her children so that coworkers won’t question her commitment to the job, or a gay executive who is unsure whether he can bring his partner to company functions.”

If people feel comfortable being themselves at work, and free to express different parts of their identities, it helps employers know what motivates them and what can be done to keep them on board. Knowing employees makes recognition and career planning more meaningful—two important keys to retention.

DEI programs can also: 

  • Help explain what behaviors constitute microaggressions or bias, and how moving past these kinds of behaviors can open the door to greater creativity and cooperation.
  • Educate employees about how to identify with and relate to each other with greater empathy in sensitive situations.
  • Provide realistic solutions to common problems. For example, DEI training can offer strategies to show employees how to recognize and address difficult situations where bias is at play—without escalating tension.
  • Educate people about their own sometimes subtle biases and how they can get in the way of a healthy organizational culture. Well-designed DEI programs help establish a common framework to understand and discuss how exclusion happens—and how to avoid it.
  • Make employees feel valued. If people feel understood and respected, regardless of their race, religion, gender, disability, or other quality, that person is much more likely to stay.
  • Give employees confidence that promotions and other benefits are distributed fairly. Effective DEI programs make sure that decision-making is transparent and rewards are based on merit. They encourage more diversity in management teams, making it more likely that a diverse range of people are considered for promotions and management positions. They can also help identify and weed out bias in systems like performance evaluations. 
  • Reduce liability and the risk of conflict escalation, which could lead to turnover or even legal action.
  • Make people feel proud to work for the company. Well-executed DEI training and programs reinforce the idea that the company is a good place to work. That bolsters the company’s reputation to potential employees.

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8 Ways to take your DEI program to the next level

The key to success is to get started. Here are some ways to make sure your company is making a meaningful commitment to DEI:

  1. Show commitment to DEI training throughout your organization, from executives to frontline employees. Don’t put off training because of shifting priorities or short-term commercial interests; make sure DEI gets equal billing among other company goals.
  2. Focus on listening to understand the experience, perceptions and ideas of underrepresented groups and incorporate these into program design.
  3. Embrace empathy. Help everyone understand that we all experience the same workplace differently based on our identity.
  4. Invest in high-quality DEI training. Poorly developed and low-quality training can have the opposite effect of what’s intended, turning people off to the importance of DEI and making training an unwelcome chore.
  5. Conduct “stay” interviews to assess the risk of turnover, understand what can be done to help people stay with the company. These types of interventions may also uncover deeper evidence of bias or inequality in the culture.
  6. Establish systems to help employees navigate their careers, such as providing them with career mentors or setting up affinity groups that can provide mutual support. 
  7. Examine current company policies and evaluate whether they unintentionally reproduce inequalities. For example, strict rules prohibiting virtual work or flexible work schedules can be particularly punitive to employees who are caregivers, particularly women. 
  8. Commit to training for managers. Relationships with direct managers can have an outsized influence on an employee’s experience of a company. If managers are insensitive or unconsciously biased toward certain employees, they can be a major risk factor for turnover. Be sure that managers are integral to promoting inclusion and equity within their teams by involving them throughout program development and checking in with them often. 

Retaining employees is a key competitive advantage for companies at any time. Losing talent is costly and disruptive, and can have seismic impacts on a company’s reputation with customers and potential employees. Investing deeply in building a culture that values and supports employees, and understands their unique contributions, can make all the difference. 

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