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3 strategies for retaining a diverse staff workforce

December 16, 2020, By Jessie Huang, Research Analyst

Illustration of activists and books

Retaining a diverse faculty is top-of-mind for institutions, but retaining a diverse staff is just as important and can be just as challenging.

A diverse staff, defined here as administrators and non-academic professionals from different identity groups, helps drive employees’ intent to stay at an institution, especially for employees of color. In a 2018 workplace diversity survey, 54% of respondents indicated they would consider finding a new job if their employers did not demonstrate a commitment to promoting a diverse workplace. For Black employees specifically, 78% indicated they would consider finding a new job. Like other employers, colleges and universities face the same expectations to build a diverse workplace. Leaders can leverage strategies, which may already be used by some divisions, across departments and the institution overall to retain diverse staff members.

of surveyed institutions reported difficulty retaining talented staff, compared to 52 percent that reported difficulty retaining talented faculty

Based on EAB’s best practice research across advancement, facilities, and other divisions, below are three strategies university and department leaders can use to support staff retention.

Understand the climate

Leaders should regularly administer climate or engagement surveys as well as exit interviews to identify employees’ experiences with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their division. Conducting surveys and interviews is only the beginning; keeping track and analyzing the data by race, ethnicity, gender, and other dimensions of identity can reveal problem areas that need to be addressed. Beyond collecting the data, ensure that the data is used to drive future policies, activities, and programs.

In between climate or engagement surveys, conduct stay interviews to understand why employees stay and how their managers can maintain or improve their job satisfaction. Stay interviews provide an opportunity to surface and address issues that may have otherwise led an employee to leave their job. These 30-minute interviews also result in an individualized action plan that addresses ideas discussed during the interview. Most importantly, stay interviews are separate from conversations about job performance and pay. They are dedicated time for listening to the staff member and understanding what motivates them to stay and remain engaged, rather than for coaching or training. As such, stay interviews help diverse staff members give feedback without fear of consequences on job evaluations.

Regularly schedule stay interviews or conduct them after specific events, such as when a staff member decides to stay after receiving an offer elsewhere or when job circumstances change (e.g., working in a remote environment), to maintain a regular pulse on how staff members feel about their jobs. Leaders can analyze interview responses to identify common pain points or engagement opportunities for specific demographics.

of employees who voluntarily left their job said their manager or organization could have done something to prevent it (Gallup 2019 survey)

About the stay interview

What it is

  • A one-on-one conversation about what motivates the employee to stay engaged
  • Proactive and regularly scheduled (1-2 times a year)
  • Conducted typically by the direct manager
  • Structured 20- to 30-minute conversations

A stay interview is not:

  • Feedback asked at a team meeting
  • About job performance or manager feedback
  • Scheduled only when there’s a problem
  • Led by Human Resources
  • Unfocused and without guided questions

What it asks

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) encourages stay interviewers to ask these five key questions. Explore the link for probing questions which help identify root issues.

  • What do you look forward to each day when coming to work?
  • What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn?
  • Why are you staying here?
  • When was the last time you thought about leaving, and what prompted it?
  • What can I do to best support you as your manager?

What it results in

  • A tailored “stay plan” or lists for actions for both the employee and managers – see example from the Ohio Department of Education
  • Both near-term and long-term strategies, such as options for a flexible work schedule and shadowing opportunities to learn a topic or skill of interest
  • Set deadlines for follow up on actions taken, which sets a cadence of accountability and distinguishes a stay interview from a regular check in

Build communities of support

Affinity-based resource groups allow diverse staff members to build community with others based on shared experiences and challenges in the workplace. Beyond providing a space for staff members to build internal connections, affinity-based resource groups also help advocate for more inclusive workplace policies and elevate problems that individuals may find hard to share alone.

Below are examples of university affinity-based resource groups compiled by INSIGHT into Diversity. INSIGHT honored 38 resource groups in its inaugural Inspiring Affinity Group Award, including ones led by or supporting staff employees:

Further engage and develop diverse staff members with mentorship programs that provide a professional support system. Large group opportunities, such as leadership cohorts, encourage community building through shared experiences. One-on-one opportunities, such as cross-department coffee chats and shadow days, offer individualized attention.

Engage staff in DEI initiatives

Advancing DEI initiatives for staff members requires the effort of every employee and leader, not just of a select few. Depending on diverse staff members to constantly advocate for themselves without support from their peers and leaders leads to burnout and eventually to employees leaving their jobs. To better support staff, leaders should offer department- and institution-wide initiatives for staff members to take part in beyond the standard DEI training sessions. Engage staff in groups or advisory committees focused on specific inclusion goals. Working groups that include staff and other members of campus encourage cross-department problem solving and empower staff members to voice their concerns and needs, whether for themselves or as allies.

Empower Staff to Drive Progress on DEI initiatives

Creating a DEI communication plan that keeps staff up to date is just as important as developing the initiatives themselves. Highlight DEI engagement opportunities, whether at the department or institution level, in newsletters, departmental emails, and staff meetings to emphasize the importance of DEI to the division. A communication plan should include affinity-based resource group activities and updates from working groups and the central DEI office, among other things, to build awareness of what is being done and how staff members can get involved. Quarterly updates and proactive communication signal an organization’s commitment to DEI.

A diverse staff helps students feel more connected to and seen by an institution, and even staff members who don’t work directly with students help drive institutional and student success.

Jessie Huang

Research Analyst

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