Minority retention strategies alleviate high-tech turnover

Equal opportunity doesn't end at the recruitment stage.

As the United States faces its tightest labor market in 30 years, companies in the high-tech industry are ex periencing employee turnover rates as much as 20% or more. One cause for such high turnover is the exodus of minorities who, once aggressively recruited, are not effectively retained by companies.

"Fortune 200 companies we deal with are very concerned about minority employees, many of whom progress to the mid-level, but then leave the company," says George Campbell, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME). "And they can't seem to solve this problem."

Finding innovative ways to retain minority high-tech employees can be critical to a company's success, especially given the labor shortage. The cost of losing minorities is two-fold: Minority employees are an important part of the highly coveted, but limited, labor pool, and they enable companies to experience a diverse set of ideas and backgrounds. This diversity creates a more fertile intellectual and creative environment and opens new opportunities. In the new economy, any edge you have when competing is key to survival.

So why are minorities leaving? A quantitative study does not exist on this issue, but from anecdotal research from various human resources (HR) executives at major companies and minority associations, the answer is a lack of true equal opportunity and effective retention programs.

"Once inside the company, minorities are often isolated from the mainstream, disconnected from key information flows, experience higher levels of scrutiny, and have to prove themselves repeatedly despite excellent credentials. Subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination is still prevalent in the workplace, and even the strongest minority employees eventually get weary," says Campbell.

Even though many companies are hiring "diversity" managers and teams to better handle the problem of minority retention, many HR executives in major high-tech companies believe it's still mostly lip service and many companies still aren't "putting their money where their mouth is." Also, the numbers are still not there to support the "efforts" of corporate diversity programs. Minorities and women remain in the lower professional and management positions and are not penetrating senior management or executive positions.

As a manager, you want to make sure you're doing everything you can to help retain minority talent. It's your reputation and your company's reputation at stake. Both from a legal and economic standpoint, you need to be an "inclusive" manager who is dedicated to hiring a good "mix" of people to add value to the overall company and its products and services.

Whether or not your company has a diversity plan, these nine "best-practice" methods are some of the best ways to make a big difference in minority retention.

  • Take sensitivity training classes. Ensure you and all your employees take at least one sensitivity training class. Take it even if you don't feel you need it. It shows your employees you are committed to the issue. More importantly, it develops the skills to communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, and build strong teamwork among employees from different backgrounds. It also dispels many assumptions you might hold about minority employees that you never realized might be causing you frustration. It will also help your minority employees understand some wrong assumptions they may have about you and your management style.

  • Empathize with the experiences of minority employees. Try hard to understand their unique set of circumstances, but don't accept a "victimized" attitude. According to Leon Capers, executive vice president at Black MBA Magazine, minorities carry with them special sensitivities many people don't realize: being treated differently and often excluded; overcoming perceptions that they are just a token minority or an Affirmative Action case so their skills aren't as strong; and dealing with the pressure (whether real or imagined) of having to do more than a majority peer just to prove their competence. While you'll want to understand and be sensitive to these concerns, your minority employee must understand their role in avoiding a "victim" mentality that can quickly derail their career.

  • Encourage participation in internal support groups. Encourage minority employees to join or start an internal support group such as an African-American or Hispanic Employee Group, which are becoming more common in companies today. These groups offer not only social and networking benefits but the opportunity to meet minority role models in higher positions, voice minority issues to company leadership, and be a sounding board for the company's minority recruiting and retention policies. But be prepared to listen and make changes if the groups uncover legitimate problems, differences, or issues.

  • Provide a mentor. It's imperative for the company to assure professional growth for all employees. Find someone, preferably outside your chain of management, who is at least two levels above your employee's position. That way, the mentor can provide a "safety" zone for employees to share key concerns and insecurities, without feeling like they are threatening their positions.

  • Conduct succession planning. Ensure that your list of high-potential employees includes minorities who you think want to and will rise through the ranks. Set up a specific plan with them on what they need to do, including what skills need improving to move up in the company. Keep them on that path by providing followup reviews, etc. Guarantee those individuals are provided the necessary training and development.

  • Avoid a "risk-averse" attitude toward minorities. Don't set unrealistic expectations and make minority employees jump through hoops when their majority peers don't have to. All employees should be able to make mistakes and get second and third chances. The same degree of freedom to fail should be allowed for everyone. Think "inclusive" not "exclusive."

  • Offer fair growth opportunities. Minority employees need equal project experiences in order to acquire the same "on-the-job" skills as their majority peers. These experiences are often critical to progressing and becoming eligible for future promotions. Let them take on mainstream projects and ones that directly affect your reputation so they know you trust them as much as the non-minorities. Additionally, proactively recommend "skills" building courses in areas you know your employees need help. Make sure they know you're looking out for their best interests and want them to progress and grow. Always communicate how these courses will help them get to the next level.

  • Give full disclosure on promotions. Let people know why someone got a promotion over them. Be detailed about the promoted person's specific contributions and skill sets that made him or her the right person for the job. Without full disclosure, you risk being accused of favoritism. Ensure that minority contributions are effectively articulated and fairly represented in the context of promotion discussions. Help your employees, be they minority or majority, understand what is needed to get promoted.

  • Recruitment role. Encourage minority employees to take an active role in recruiting other minorities. Seek their input on the types of schools that develop talented minority graduates, summer intern programs, and other minority candidates they can recommend.

By instituting these nine steps, you will not only significantly increase minority retention, but you'll also create a more contented, motivated overall workforce. That's the key to today's labor shortage: ensuring that employees want to stay.

Phyllis Shurn-Hannah is president of Cascade Associates Inc., a human-resource consulting and staffing/recruiting company in Philadelphia, PA, that specializes in diversity training and recruiting. Cascade also has offices in Delaware and Georgia.

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