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HR has a duty to diverse hires; here’s how to meet it

Serilda Summers-McGee, CEO of Workplace Change
Serilda Summers-McGee
Serilda Summers-McGee is the CEO of Workplace Change, a people and culture firm focused on bringing about positive changes in the workplace and incorporating into work cultures and processes a range of practices that facilitate meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion. Previously, she served as a senior HR executive for the City of Portland, the Oregon Department of Education and Kaiser Permanente. Within the last two years, she has also acted as an interim CHRO for OHSU, Oregon’s largest healthcare provider, and Portland Community College as part of Workplace Change work. She holds a B.S. from Grand Valley State University, an M.A. in student affairs administration from Ball State University, and an M.B.A. from Willamette University. Portland Business Journal has named her a Woman of Influence and listed her as an influential business leader in a “40 under 40” issue.

Whether a university brings in a Black woman to take on its presidency or a company hires a gay person to head global sales, HR leaders have a duty to support such hires and help the individuals involved overcome any cultural obstacles to success. We also are responsible for ensuring the workplace—peers, superiors and board members—have the mindsets, language and tools to deal with the change that inevitably comes with hiring someone “different.”

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Too often, when introducing diversity into the workforce, HR focuses almost exclusively on the recruitment process. But in reality, the DEI work done before and after hiring someone different from the general workforce population (or from a specific predecessor) is what makes for a successful and productive employee experience.

In this article, I will point out several common process flaws shared by many organizations when it comes to onboarding and supporting individuals who are “different”—whether because of race, gender identity, religion, education, disability or even career experiences.

Culture-driven DEI strategy

It all starts with how you talk about potential hires. Language matters. Are you or team members using phrases like “diversity hire,” “underrepresented minority” or other personal identifiers when referencing candidates—even when talking informally? If so, you inadvertently set people up to think you prioritized diversity over skills and knowledge when recruiting candidates.

It’s critical that managers know that your recruiters are recommending candidates based on the potential value they can bring to the organization, not because they represent a certain dimension of diversity. You also want senior leaders to recognize that your team is looking to build the best workforce for the future rather than simply checking off diversity boxes. And certainly, the last thing any new hire wants is to be branded as a diversity hire rather than being acknowledged for the skills and competencies they bring to the table.

You must also tackle unconscious biases that can create unfair interviews and poison a new hire’s job experience. This could be through coaching or training and role-playing customized specifically for the situation and people involved.

Not only must you help people understand and disrupt their own biases, but you need to help them learn to constructively counter the biases held by others. For instance, is your CEO prepared to deal with the unconscious biases of a board member who is unfairly critiquing the work of a new chief marketing officer?

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The kind of work I’m talking about takes into account a company’s culture and goes beyond the typical off-the-shelf DEI training often required by law or company policy. For diverse employees to feel safe and included, managers need to learn to listen without pre-judging, ask non-threatening questions and provide clear guidelines for team communication.

The company culture should be accepting of failure and acknowledge good work and accomplishments by employees at all levels. HR professionals and managers must also be equipped with the skills to productively address ongoing change, spot potential issues before they become serious and resolve conflict.

HR’s role in leading the change on DEI

Next, you need to think about how a new hire will be received in the work ecosystem. Assuming that you can simply “cut and paste” a new hire into a role previously held by someone very different is asking for a train wreck.

The reaction employees might have to a woman of color assuming a senior leadership role will likely be very different from how they perceived her white male predecessor. The same would be true for a Black software engineer hired from an HBCU rather than from one of the universities most commonly attended by peers.

You and your team should consider any supplemental resources the new hire might need, outside of the standard onboarding training, that could help them find their feet in the new work environment. This could be an assigned mentor, employee or business resource group, a series of job shadows or informational interviews. Note: I’m a big proponent of ERGs for socialization opportunities and BRGs for affinity groups wanting to achieve actual impact and meaningful results; see my discussion here.

I’d also suggest that you, as an HR leader, personally check in with the new hire to let them know you’re available to help or brainstorm. One of the biggest challenges a person from an underrepresented group faces when coming into a new ecosystem is an acute feeling of isolation. Knowing there’s someone truly available to turn to when needed can help. Backing up such personal support with further coaching and connections can help mitigate those feelings.

The bottom line is that workplace change comes with discomfort. Your job is to actively lead the change, help people manage it and be prepared to respond. Too often, the onus of creating a successfully diverse workforce falls on the shoulders of the employees themselves. Accountability for DEI must be shared by managers and senior leaders, and it’s up to us as HR leaders to make that happen.