The power of difference: How to hire and retain diverse teams in brands and agencies

David Slocum / July 2019

Professor David Slocum, academic director at Rare, a Google platform that enables underrepresented talent to thrive and businesses to drive more inclusive cultures, shares practical tips for hiring and retaining diverse teams, and creating more relevant campaigns in the process.

Homogenous teams produce homogenous outcomes. But diverse teams, built around different perspectives, experiences, and sets of skills, enable creativity and innovation. And that leads to better products and more meaningful marketing campaigns.

The good news is that most of us in creative industries know this by now. The harder part, though, is putting that understanding and commitment consistently into practice. I've worked with hundreds of creative leaders as they aim to go beyond “talking the talk” of values to “walking the walk” of meaningful change, and improving inclusion and diversity in their workplace.

And here's what I've learned, it's really easy to have great intentions and to know all the reasons why they should do more. It’s even easy to draft insightful action plans and make gestures like one-off trainings. It's much harder to change people’s habitual ways of seeing others, and the behaviours that enable them to respect diversity and make their teams and companies more inclusive. That's why we all have to keep sharing what's working, what's not, and how to make that learning live.

We at Rare work to drive change by sharing tangible tools, thought leadership, and proven practices. Our approach is grounded in decades of research and experience that marketers, no matter the industry, can benefit from.

Abandon trade-off thinking

Hiring diverse employees has always been a challenge, considering the urgent need to fill positions. But it also presents leaders with an opportunity to go beyond traditional trade-off thinking. Rather than rejecting the longer time period often required to recruit and hire diverse candidates, leaders should focus on the benefits those candidates bring to an organisation.

While there’s no perfect formula, transparent leadership, a commitment to organisational strategies, and thoughtful hiring practices can create meaningful change. Here are some concrete strategies that we’ve seen work well in practice in the industry.

Three tips for hiring and retaining diverse talent

1572 - Hiring Diverse Talent

How to hire diverse talent

  • Collaborate with universities and external affinity organisations (for example, SheSays, Creative Equals, The Future Is ND) to determine how to shape job searches and target appropriate D&I candidates.
  • Conduct deliberate outreach to diverse networks and individuals across industries to identify the actual talent.
  • Expand points of entry within your company with paid internships, contractors, and rotational programs.
  • Standardise evaluation criteria and use specific measures across candidate screening systems. For example, Deloitte Canada uses a system called “extreme recruiting” in which the company sources and assesses candidates differently for different roles, and acknowledges cultural and generational differences.
  • Upgrade from the applicant tracking systems of a decade ago to emerging candidate assessment tools, integrating social media, machine learning, and increased analytics capabilities.
  • Remove biased language from job descriptions, application materials, and interviews. For example, use gender-neutral terms, and only list the skills required for the job rather than ideal candidate descriptors like, “positive attitude” or “team-oriented,” which can unintentionally invite bias.
  • Ask for employee feedback on job descriptions and at other stages in the application, screening, and onboarding processes.
  • Identify individual traits or skills that cause candidates to fail and examine ways to address them. For example, provide post-hiring English language support for otherwise strong candidates.
  • Establish partnerships across human resources and communications functions within your company to ensure processes are shaped by a clear and consistent prioritisation of diversity.
  • Create “innovation portfolios” — evolving toolkits for recruitment, hiring, and retention — to support action-taking for different demographics and functions. Allow for experimentation and learning.

(Re)design your culture

Hiring is only half the equation. Retention efforts are important too. For the diverse individuals and teams that do make it into a company’s ranks, a host of issues can arise: unconscious bias, microaggressions, exclusion, and discrimination in the workplace. Which means great talent often ends up driven out of the industry.

In a 2017 Deloitte study, 23% of respondents indicated they left their organisations for more inclusive ones. That’s expensive. Replacing an employee costs more than one-fifth of their salary, on average. And the loss of talent can be an even bigger blow in terms of the creative cost.

Changing mindsets and habitual behaviours, that is, changing culture, is the way to embed diversity into how we do business. It requires (re)designing work processes and behaviours, maximising the ability of diverse individuals to contribute, and enabling everyone to establish new habits.

How to retain diverse talent

  • Understand who your employees are through segmented survey assessments, independently facilitated focus groups, or one-on-one talks. Then understand the obstacles to supporting their inclusion through things like barrier analysis and culture research.
  • Set inclusion targets; then track and share results. Train mid-level leaders in fostering inclusion, and then hold them accountable.
  • Identify concrete engagement points for senior leaders. For example, foster  listening, feedback, and storytelling sessions, and solidify executive sponsorships of employee groups.
  • Upgrade mentorship to include sponsorship of and reverse mentoring by employees from diverse groups. Create formal sponsorship networks to help diverse community members navigate the organisation.
  • Support and empower employee resource groups to leverage and distribute learning and development opportunities. For example, encourage them to  develop diversity and inclusion playbooks that include not-so-frequently-asked questions.
  • Institutionalise consistent, structured feedback processes for performance and promotion reviews.  Train managers in providing feedback to individuals who may suffer from imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, or backlash avoidance.
  • Ensure unconscious bias and inclusive mindset training are based on the latest research and best practices. These should be part of a coherent series of engagements, and drive both greater awareness and action-taking
  • Institute gender-neutral parental leave policies, including supporting reintegration through formal return-to-work programs.
  • Pursue pay equity and make efforts, status, and outcomes transparent.
  • Embed diversity and inclusion goals and efforts into overall strategic and operational conversations. For example, include employees in organisational decision-making, make those efforts visible, and share ongoing progress and challenges.

Leaders won’t always get it right, and we need to allow for failure. But competition for diverse talent only increases. And organisations who successfully foster a culture of diversity and inclusion will be best positioned to hire and retain diverse teams, ultimately making their companies more relevant and their employees more engaged. Drawing from a line by Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, “the business case for diversity is as straightforward as it ever was. It’s time now to act.”

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