Redefining “the minority-retention problem”

28 May

In “Racial Diversity Efforts Ebb for Elite Careers, Analysis Finds,” Nelson Schwartz and Michael Cooper of the NY Times report on “how much progress minorities, blacks in particular, have made in integrating into some of the most sought-after professions, especially since the recession” ( On page 2 of the article, they get to their interview with Emily Parker, managing partner at Texas law firm Thompson & Knight, who said:

… the firm was proud of its black partners and worked hard to promote diversity, but she noted that many top law firms had struggled to retain minority lawyers in recent years. She pointed out that the Diversity Scorecard survey had reported a decrease in the number of minority lawyers at top firms since 2008, even as more firms responded to the survey.

“Even though the number of surveyed law firms increased by 10 percent, the overall number of minority attorneys decreased by approximately 3 percent, which is a convincing statistical illustration of the minority-retention problem faced by Thompson & Knight and practically every law firm in the country,” Ms. Parker said in a statement. She said the firm remained focused on fostering diversity, providing law school scholarships for minority students and internships for students from historically black institutions.

“Minority-retention problem,” eh?

I find this language very familiar and problematic. It digests a little too easily, perhaps because it suggests that the problem lies with minorities. It would indicate a different mindset if we talked about the “organizational retention problem,” no? But we talk about “the minority-retention problem” as if to say there’s something about them (those darn minorities) that makes it hard to keep hold of them! The “struggle to retain minority lawyers” reinforces this notion by connoting a herculean effort on the part of the organization to retain the minorities they hire.

But what exactly is that effort? It typically comprises:

  • messaging diversity as an institutional priority (that everyone understands is the first to fall off when times get tough; diversity is often miscategorized as a luxury, non-essential priority);
  • hiring someone to be in charge of “the minority problem” (and the NY Times article makes an important observation about who that person all to frequently is: someone who lacks the status and influence to actually shape organizational policy, practice and culture);
  • using an anemic and unjust status quo as a metric for success/failure (thereby chaining the possibilities for change to a basement level expectation); and
  • offering periodic sensitivity or cultural competency training (see first bullet point: even when the budget is flush, these trainings often fall short of the comprehensive program of “recruiting and inclusion and training and development, with substantive work assignments” that former Thompson & Knight chief diversity officer Pauline Higgins recommends).

By no means am I suggesting organizations should not do these things. I’m just suggesting that the above hardly constitutes, in my mind, a real roll-your-sleeves-up struggle to retain minority employees.

Shifting to a perspective that defines the issue as organizational retention, law firms, schools and other institutions can tap into some more pervasive solutions to this “problem.” The Times article offers some insight into other vital aspects of organizational opportunity and responsibility when its comes to cultivating a diverse workforce:

  • creating a robust and comprehensive approach to diversity akin to how the organization tackles other top priority initiatives (why reinvent the wheel, when you already know how to successfully harness your organization’s resources?);
  • acknowledging and creating access to the “social rituals [and relationships that] can play a big role in determining who makes it on to the partnership track in the exclusive world of white-shoe firms”;
  • acknowledging, educating to and establishing a zero-tolerance policy regarding the “rebuttable presumption” that minority employees are “there to fill a quota and [are] not as qualified as white colleagues”;
  • hiring leadership who will actively advocate for minority employees’ access to opportunities and resources (especially in tough economic times);
  • creating a culture where employees at all levels prioritize the work of your organization’s diversity committee or office because they understand that diversity is vital to unleashing everyone’s potential;
  • setting an audacious goal for diversity. Instead of settling for adding one additional employee of color, why not shoot for being the top choice school, hospital, nonprofit or corporation for professionals of color? (And here, I’m using a BHAG lens to reframe diversity goals:–%20A%20Companys%20Most%20Important%20Long%20Term%20Decision.pdf); and
  • providing and mandating mission-vital, “substantive” diversity and inclusion professional growth throughout your organization, as per Ms Higgins’ experienced recommendation.

Of course, all of this means a lot of work. Some real effort, you might say. Because at the heart we need to flip the script on the retention problem and focus on the elephant that is the room: the organizational culture and practices that create access to resources and freedom for more people who aren’t like each other to thrive while working side by side.

** Thanks to my colleague SK for this article.

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