Having Good Intentions Is Not the Way to Diversify Your Staff

A colleague described her journey around diversity. She learned that despite her husband being black, she really did not understand what it is like to live as a black person in this country. But she did know that her organization, which served a diverse population, would have more impact if it had a diverse staff. She shared this story of how she made that change.

I Am Married to a Black Man, But I Was Still Clueless

As told by a nonprofit CEO somewhere in the U.S.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are near and dear to my heart because I’m married to a black man. We’ve been together for decades. My first inkling that I was clueless was years ago when I read Peggy McIntosh’s, White Privilege, Unpacking the Knapsack. It was a revelation to me, because, of course, when you’re white, you swim in whiteness in the white world. And my husband wasn’t constantly telling me about all the microaggressions and all the things he encountered. We did talk about it often, and there were racist things that happened, but before I read this article, I didn’t have the overarching sense of what it’s like to live like that.

My Team Was All White Women, But Our Clients Were Diverse

So fast forward a few years and we moved to a new city in the Midwest. I got a position running a key program at one site of a large nonprofit. My program was one of several that the organization provided. It had earned income as well as donations. The city was diverse, and we served a diverse population including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, but also new immigrants from Africa and Asia. There was also a sizeable LGBTQ population.

When my team met our earned income goals for the month, I would take them out for lunch. And I remember after about two years sitting at lunch, looking around, and thinking, oh my goodness, they all look like me. They were all white women with blonde hair. There were a couple of gay women. So, I guess there was a little diversity. But that was it.

I wanted to fix it. I was young and naïve. So, for my next staff opening, I hired a black woman. She wasn’t qualified for the job, but I wanted to increase our diversity, so I hired her. That really came back and bit me. It impacted the people who worked with her. I learned an important lesson: Having good intentions is not the way to diversify your staff.

As a Leader, I Was Accountable

As I said, we served a diverse population, and I knew that having staff and leadership that looked like the people we served was important. I also knew that as a leader, I was accountable. So, I had a conversation with myself and said, “You’re going to change this, you’re going to fix this.” I had no idea how. But sometimes the universe steps in and helps you when you make a big decision. And what happened for me was the leadership changed at the top. The new leader put me in charge of this program at all three of our organization’s sites. And that gave me an opportunity to build a whole new team.

Before all the sites were put under me, each was run independently. There was no coordination between them. Each site had a general manager and then there were coordinators for the different functional areas, and often those coordinators hired assistants. Finally, there was the front line staff. There were no standard operating procedures between the sites. Every site did things differently. It was crazy making. At the same time, our financials weren’t that great. I knew that we had to develop standard operating procedures and to change our hiring practices.

Take the Time to Bring Everyone Along

I brought in the leadership teams from all the sites and did a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities threats) analysis. I had everyone write down what they thought were our strengths and weaknesses. They recognized that nobody was doing things in the same way. They saw that this was an equity issue too. I knew that I had to connect our earned income goals to the mission of the organization. Some people did not make the connection. So, next I held group meetings with all of the staff, sort of a listening tour. I asked them what they thought our strengths and weaknesses were and also what our goals should be for the next year. We did this first about six months in, and then again every year. Both the leadership team and the line staff told me exactly what I was thinking we should do – they confirmed it. When the whole group agrees that something needs to be changed, and they see that the change will help move everything forward, it is easier to make that change.

Writing Job Descriptions and Sourcing Candidates Is Vital

We spent a lot of time putting together standard operating procedures for all three sites. Then I worked with HR on reorganizing our staffing and revamping our hiring practices. We had almost no diversity at the top, though frontline staff were more diverse. I spent a lot of time with the HR department developing job descriptions and sourcing candidates. We worked hard to get the word out in diverse places, not just the ones we had used in the past. We communicated with the staff about what we were doing, stressing that we were making changes so that we could serve our clients better. We wanted everyone to know what we were doing, why we were doing it, and the progress we were making.

I focused on communicating up as well as to my staff. I made sure the leadership above me knew what we were doing. The CEO had all the people at my level attend board meetings. So, I was able to keep the board apprised of what we were doing as well.

The process took about two years. We changed the system; nobody lost a job. With the new hiring processes, we got great candidates and ended up with a diverse leadership team that included both men and women, people of different races and sexual orientation, and also different ages. And by year three, our financials were doing better – we were not only meeting our earned income goals, but we were surpassing them. We had fewer complaints from our staff and also the people we served seemed happier.

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t hire someone just because of the color of their skin if they are not qualified. This is not fair to them or the rest of your staff.
  • Listen to your staff.
  • Talk to your community and be transparent.
  • As a leader, take personal responsibility. Leadership is key. First, I made a decision to do this, then I had to take responsibility for making it happen.
  • Really focus on sourcing qualified candidates.

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