Sometimes, even the most well-intentioned teams end up a little lopsided demographically. One of the biggest challenges with a lack of diversity is retaining the diverse employees who remain.
The experience of “onlyness”- being the only person like you in the room – is deeply isolating for employees and tends to lead to higher turnover. Women who experience onlyness report higher levels of harassment at work, are more likely to feel like their expertise is being questioned, and feel they need to prove their competence more than others. This leads to intense feelings of isolation and stress, often to the point where they simply leave their job.
Often, special programs or initiatives can make diverse employees feel even more isolated, especially when they’re the only person like them on the team. Supporting an uneven team is difficult, but here are our top tips to make sure everyone feels seen.
Share the ‘soft’ work
Whatever you call it, office housework, soft work, emotional work – make sure it is evenly spread out. Women consistently report feeling like they’re expected to take on more “soft” work than their male colleagues. McKinsey and LeanIn’s 2021 report found that female managers were 11% more likely to provide overall emotional support, 7% more likely to be checking in on employees’ overall well-being, and 6% more likely to be ensuring employees’ workloads are manageable. While much of this is expected of managers, it can easily become an undue burden on women. Make sure everyone in the office is carrying their weight, and women aren’t left with disproportionate amounts of emotional labor.
In addition to emotional support, women consistently report feeling expected to take on office management responsibilities, like ordering lunch, taking notes, planning events, or grabbing coffee. Women of Color report even higher instances of such requests, often facing the onlyness of being the only person of their gender and their race in the room. If you have an imbalanced team to begin with, ensure you don’t set expectations that the only woman on the team will take over soft work like this. When women take on extra, unpaid responsibilities, they can feel like they aren’t an equal and valued member of the team. Create a system in which soft work is evenly distributed and everyone contributes.
Pay more than just lip service to diversity hiring
If your company spends a lot of time talking about diversity hiring, but not really hiring many diverse employees, the diverse employees you do have might start to feel that the company doesn’t believe that women are qualified. A great way to ensure that they feel your support is to create real, actionable plans to increase diversity hiring. Even better than a verbal commitment or intention, attend events; join groups; work with hiring companies that specialize in hiring women, racial minorities, veterans, etc., or offer existing employees rewards for diverse referrals (a strategy Intel successfully introduced in 2015). Nobody expects your company to be perfect, but making clear strides toward stronger diversity lets others know you’re serious about it.
Have a zero tolerance policy for harassment and aggression
This goes without saying, but having a zero tolerance policy for harassment, rude comments, inappropriate jokes, and other forms of aggression is crucial. Far too many “jokes” and other demeaning remarks get ignored or tolerated in workplace settings. While they may not be maliciously intentioned, employees often don’t feel like they can stick up for themselves at work, especially when they’re the only person who looks like them. Experiences and comments that are “just a joke” can add up and take a toll.
Make sure your management and employees keep one another accountable so that no employee begins to feel singled out or othered. The best way to create a zero tolerance policy is to put it in writing. Define acceptable versus not acceptable behavior, educate your workforce, create clear and established avenues for reporting issues, and take those reports seriously when they happen. Recent research from the Waterloo Department of Psychology found that even small acts of social inclusion made big differences in reducing gender barriers. In other words, seemingly insignificant comments or actions really matter. It is often the culmination of small negative experiences that push women out of their jobs. Rather, try to create a culmination of small positive experiences that will help them stay. An inclusive and kind environment will make the workplace more welcoming to everyone.
Create a lifeline to senior management
Creating an open line of communication between employees and management is always a good idea, especially for retention purposes. Understanding your employees’ goals, challenges, and dreams will help you support them more effectively and guide them through their work. Creating trust between employees and management will also ensure that any of the above points don’t get too out of hand. If you have regular check-ins with employees, they’re more likely to report concerns such as inappropriate jokes, or always being asked to order lunch. Employees are more likely to stay if they view your company as a place to be seen, heard, and appreciated.
We can’t always hire our dream teams right away, and teams can sometimes end up a bit asymmetrical. True diversity is a marathon, not a sprint. So if you’ve found yourself in a situation where your team is unevenly balanced, take action to ensure everyone feels supported and seen.