In 2017 Inspiring Capital and the Research Triangle Park Foundation hosted two diversity and inclusion focused events within its Future of Talent series: a round table event followed up by a panel discussion. Expert panelists from Merck, NetApp, BASF, Blinded HR, and Redwoods Group participated, engaging in a meaningful dialogue to identify challenges/barriers, proven solutions, and new opportunities that can support and enhance inclusion within the workplace. As these teams prepare to launch their 2018 series of work, Lisa Jemison, RTP’s Director of Company & University Engagement and Tadd Wamester, Inspiring Capital’s Director of Organizational Learning & Transformation, sat down to reflect on those diversity and inclusion events of 2017.
What does diversity mean to you?
Lisa: Through our partnership with Inspiring Capital, we’ve had the opportunity to lead the conversation about how we can be more inclusive of diverse talent across all levels of leadership within the regional science and tech community. Without clearly defined diversity and inclusion strategies, we’ll struggle as a region to maintain our competitive edge both in the innovation and startup community, and also in our ability to land a large corporate headquarters like Amazon HQ2. Companies will go where the talent is, and the business case for diverse talent is crystal clear. But in my personal experience, diversity is also the acknowledgement of the complexity we get to own and experience as humans. And accepting diversity, welcoming it, encouraging it is to be endlessly curious about other people, to be proactive and inquisitive if for no other reason than to feed one’s own imagination and understanding of the world. That understanding may help you create the next “big thing,” but I think that just one step beyond curiosity is empathy, and that’s the part of diversity and inclusion that I find most compelling as a human being.
Tadd: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I have several different lenses with which I view diversity. I spent many years working with highly skilled immigrants and refugees who were restarting their career under very different circumstances, so diversity to me involves language, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, socio-economic status, education, and life experience…there are so many layers to each individual. But many times, I am just referring to the equity of opportunity and diversity of thought. As it relates to team work, there is no shortage of data showing that a diverse group makes better decisions, whether that means a better ability to innovate, anticipate customer needs, or foresee future challenges.
What are some of the barriers for diverse candidates seeking opportunity?
Lisa: Unfortunately, there are many employment barriers diverse candidates face when seeking opportunity. Whether that be names that don’t “sound white” getting screened out, or first-generation students not having the family network necessary to land the unpaid summer internships during college that can build the resume needed to compete post-college (or simply not being able to afford the opportunity cost of an unpaid internship).
Tadd: Yes, and it goes back to the lack of equity of opportunity. Within the events, we also heard a good deal of discussion around disability, and how not all aspects of diversity and disability are visible. Nationally, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than twice the rate of those without a disability, and underemployment is also significantly higher for this population despite lower workforce participation rates. We discussed the prevalence of mental health challenges and the stigma associated with seeking treatment, even though the vast majority of mental illnesses are treatable. That is another example of unnecessary barriers and roadblocks to success for individuals who are trying to get ahead in their career.
What are some of the solutions that can better level the playing field?
Lisa: I know, for example, the Racial Equity Institute is providing training, consulting, and research on how to understand and address racism. And Christine Noel from Redwoods had mentioned the “Rooney Rule” of making sure there was at least one qualified minority candidate for consideration within any application process.
Tadd: I do remember that, and it’s so important to include that type of a self-check to avoid all-too-common recruiting practices that are systematically excluding diverse candidates. In addition to that check, it is important to actively network and build relationships that result in diverse candidate pools. For example, an employer could plan recruiting events with or send out job openings via the Carolina Firsts network; it is important to be intentional about making sure you are recruiting from diverse networks, and not expecting them to find you without putting in any effort. Too often, we simply send out job posts via our own existing network, which can result in a candidate pool that appears like we are looking in the mirror.
Lisa: So true. I think that often applies to how individuals choose who they mentor, and for those seeking mentorship, it may limit the perception of who feels a mentor is available to them. I think that emphasizes one reason that Employee Resource Groups and Business Resource Groups are so important, to create the space for networking and mentorship opportunities. Additionally, leadership support and executive sponsorship of diversity groups are top-down drivers for the startup and success of those groups. We heard from companies that affinity groups are excellent stage sets for mentoring and reverse mentoring opportunities between group members and executive leadership, which in turn shapes corporate culture and helps set expectations around inclusivity for the organization. That to me feels like a practical and easy to implement strategy for proactive inclusivity and keeping diversity top of mind, even at a big with five hundred or more employees.
Who are the key influencers within a company pertaining to diversity and inclusion of talent?
Tadd: Executives are one level of leadership and influence, but so are hiring managers and HR team members that screen resumes before sending them to hiring managers. We learned from companies that these individuals are gatekeepers in a sense, and their commitment to diversity (or lack thereof) has quite a pull on the talent pool that makes up entire departments, and thus leadership. Let’s not blame any one group or point fingers at one group or the other, but collectively accept and own the problem, open a dialogue around systemic barriers and explore individual biases that contribute to the problem. I have heard the diversity talent pipeline being described as “leaky” because diverse candidates are not afforded the same opportunities for promotion, and too often don’t even “get their foot in the door” even if they pass the initial hiring screen.
Lisa: That’s right, Tadd. If hiring managers have biases baked into their screening questions for HR, then HR may knowingly screen out diverse talent not because they want to, but because they’re screening for what is asked of the hiring manager. Our conversations with companies got me thinking about how we can empower HR to team up with hiring managers to be checks and balances for each other. In doing so it could help make inclusion not one person’s job, but everyone’s job.
Tadd: Exactly. But even before we can come up with a plan and strategies, the first step is knowing where you are now and where you want to be 1 and 2 years from now. So, that leaves me with a final ask — everyone, please, find out your organization’s diversity metrics, it’s imperative for a better, more diverse future! Inspiring Capital has joined in the B-Corp commitment to diversity including the intention to building a diverse advisory board to inform our growth where white males are the minority, flipping around the typical board make up.
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