A few ways to think about DE&I (for a growing firm)

Like most organizations—and people—we want to contribute positively to society. It’s one reason we work with pro bono clients and share our networks with social-sector organizations when possible. And it’s also why we have ongoing conversations about what effective diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts could look like for us—a small but quickly growing team.

A central problem with DE&I efforts broadly seems to be that no one quite knows what will work—if they can even agree on what it means for an approach to “work.” Is it to have the composition of the workforce reflect the overall population? To have the ranks of senior management look like the overall population? To eliminate pay gaps? As much as the Leff team prioritizes thoughtful discussions, we are still learning the answers. Below are a few lessons from our reading and conversations about hiring and working with people from historically marginalized populations. These are far from a fully formed plan for equitable hiring, professional development, and advancement, but they are paving the way.

At the hiring stage, it may help to have a mix of people screen resumes or to have a working group discuss and set screening criteria. A New York Times feature on the low numbers of Black economists at the Fed confirms that people who review resumes tend to look for people who followed a similar path as they did. A gatekeeper might greenlight candidates who graduated from college in four years with good GPAs and work experience, including internships. However, screening resumes this way can filter out candidates from different—usually less privileged—socioeconomic backgrounds who may take longer to graduate from degree programs or have zig-zagging careers because of obligations outside of work and school. Explicit candidate screening criteria that exclude less relevant factors, such as how long it took candidates to complete their degrees, can give so-called “nontraditional candidates” a better chance during the hiring process.

Being more open to candidates with nontraditional resumes isn’t necessarily a risky move. A 2020 study suggests that as many as 30 million US residents without college degrees may have the skills to move into jobs that pay an average of 70 percent more than their current jobs. The talent pool for many roles is larger than we might think.

A couple things to watch out for: First, don’t put candidates in the position of being the only ____. Being tokenized is a surefire way to compromise someone’s sense of psychological safety at work. Put them in a peer group where they can find natural allies. This applies to more senior hires, too. Speaking of which, please oh please hire candidates from historically marginalized populations for leadership roles.

And second, once everyone’s in their roles, be aware of the structural pressures that might make their lives complicated. For instance, the American economic structure makes it difficult for Black people—and other non-white people—to build financial stability. Similarly, women—especially mothers—would have an easier time contributing at work and reaping the financial benefits if more of them (us) had a supportive workplace community. (The mothers of Leff have plenty to say about being working parents during the pandemic. And speaking of mothers, there’s nothing keeping cis, straight men from taking charge at home. I digress…)

As I said, we don’t have many answers. But we’re going to keep looking for them—and we’ll share how our thinking evolves with practice and further research. In the meantime, knowing that our teammates are working to make our workplace and society a bit more equitable is a good place to be. After all, isn’t a place where everyone feels supported and able to do great work the point?

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