Retaining the Best

by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

No one wants to work where they are unwelcome, uncomfortable, or unfulfilled. Sadly, this is what can happen when we make little effort to make our workplaces hospitable to employees of all backgrounds. This article discusses ways in which organizations can create diversity-friendly environments which will not only attract, but retain, the finest quality employees.

Ideas include:

  • Staff and management training to enhance mutual understanding and team building.
  • Networking groups designed to break-down barriers between diverse employees.
  • Mentor partnerships to help new staff acclimate to the organizations culture.

When I first entered the workforce, I, like many of my generation, found myself in a number of very different environments. There were a couple of insurance offices, a very brief -- and, I must admit, unsuccessful -- stint as a house-cleaner, a bank or two, and even an odd little laundry on the outskirts of the UCLA campus where I washed and folded other peoples shirts and underwear. For all the unpleasantness associated with these jobs, feeling different or left out was not one of my problems. The people I worked with were - at least on the surface - just like me: white, middle-class, native-born Americans.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the luxury of instantly fitting in wherever they go. It might be a woman like Jenna who found herself immersed in the male-dominated world of the internet or Steve, a gay man who struggled to belong in a workplace where he was uncomfortable admitting he was gay. Even David had the experience of being left out when he went to work for an all female organization. Being different can be difficult and, for the sake of business, it can mean that fine employees fail to function to the best of their ability and, worse, are compelled to move on to greener pastures where they feel more accepted, better able to communicate, and more at ease.

If your organization is riddled with sexism, ageism, homophobia, and racism then the solutions below are not for you. These ideas will only work in organizations where the climate is basically receptive to differences but where some of the skills necessary to honor those differences are not yet in place.

My first solution is education. Of course there is more to any diversity effort than training, but education still is an indispensable first step to creating a diversity-friendly workplace. I am not talking here about training so-called majority employees how to communicate with the minority new arrival, but, instead, about how all employees can communicate better. One of the things that has been missing in diversity training in the past is the awareness that communication is a multi-way street. No longer is it accurate to say that all will be well if native-born Americans learn to communicate with immigrants, heterosexuals with homosexuals, and men with women. Immigrants also need to learn to communicate with the native-born, gay men and lesbian women must learn to communicate with heterosexuals, and women must learn to communicate with men. In short, everyone needs to learn to communicate with everyone else.

Networking groups are another way in which diverse new employees can be helped to feel more comfortable. Groups like these have been functioning successfully in diverse organizations ever since AT&T launched its first set of racially-defined affinity groups. Womens groups, gay and lesbian groups, and Asian-Pacific-Island groups are all examples of programs designed to encourage contact between like populations.

What is missing, however, from like-population networking groups such as these is the function of getting to know populations different from ones own. Parenting groups, for example, are invaluable because they create a common bond and increased comfort across gender, race, and ethnic lines. Similarly, groups of employees who have responsibility for elder care find a connection and means of communication in their common challenges, frustrations, and joys. The purpose of cross-functional groups such as these is to focus on the shared challenges and interests that allow people of all backgrounds to connect, communicate better, and, therefore, to feel more comfortable in the organization.

Finally, mentoring partnerships are important in making diverse employees feel at home. There are two ways to design mentoring programs. One option is to match new employees with current employees of a similar background. This approach has the advantage of allowing the current employee to pass on experience gained from his or her unique experience as a member of that group. The second approach, and the one which I favor, is to match people of different demographic descriptions: men with women; immigrants with the native born; Latinos with blacks, etc. The reason I favor this approach is that it encourages mutual understanding between diverse groups and, therefore, has a positive impact on increasing mutual comfort and adaptability.

The key to all of these approaches is to guarantee that enough knowledge is present in the organization to allow everyone to communicate effectively with and understand those who are different from themselves. Only in this way can we create an environment which is truly hospitable to diversity.

Copyright 2006 - TMP Interactive Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  This article first appeared on Monster, the leading online global network for careers.  To see other career-related articles, visit http://content.monster.com.