Building diversity in the workplace is an initiative HR leaders cannot afford to miss. Companies with diverse workforces are proven to deliver higher performance and greater innovation.

Therefore, many technology companies are directing large sums of money to increase internal diversity metrics and cultivate a broader pipeline of minority candidates.

Despite investment in equal-opportunity hiring practices, diversity numbers are unimpressive Click To Tweet

Yet, anecdotes abound of poor treatment and discrimination in the tech industry due to race, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Despite the investment in equal-opportunity hiring practices, diversity numbers remain unimpressive, and theories emerge that the tech sector is challenged with regard to retaining diverse talent.

It is possible the competitive job market is to blame. But the issue of fostering meaningful diversity in the workplace over time requires a more nuanced approach, because there remains an important question: Is the tech industry driving away diverse talent through its culture, which includes unfair treatment?

The Unfairness Factor

The Kapor Center for Social Impact recently released a study investigating this exact topic. Their “Tech Leavers Study” delves deeply into the reasons individuals move on from tech positions, particularly people from minority groups. This study used a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 professionals who voluntarily left a position in a tech-related field or function in the last three years.

The study found unfair treatment is the single largest factor in turnover across all groups and it is significantly more pronounced in the tech industry than other industries (42 percent of tech-industry leavers versus 32 percent of technical-role leavers in non-tech-industry fields).

Unfair treatment is the single largest factor in turnover across all groups and it is significantly more pronounced in the tech industry than other industries.

Individuals were twice as likely to leave due to unfairness than being recruited away, and 25 percent of those who were recruited said unfairness was a factor. In addition, 15 percent of employees who were actively seeking a better opportunity (the second most-cited reason) said unfairness contributed to their decision.

Simply put, these people were not being lured or pulled away, but pushed out.

The Cost of Not Acting

Not only is unfairness an overwhelming ethics issue, it comes with a high cost. The Kapor study pegged the total cost of diversity retention in the US tech industry at $16 billion per year. However, this is the simple direct cost of filling those positions left vacant by unfairness.

Ineffective retention has serious additional reputation costs: 35 percent of leavers said they were unlikely to refer others for jobs at their former organization, and 25 percent said they would be less likely to recommend the company’s products or services. The impact of turnover on other factors such as innovation, customer service, morale, and organizational knowledge should not be underestimated.

The way different groups experience unfair treatment is dramatically varied.

The way different groups experience unfair treatment is dramatically varied. Although the unfairness factor is the primary driver of voluntary attrition, it plays out in different ways.

Women were significantly more likely to experience and observe unfair treatment overall, particularly with regards to sexual harassment. Underrepresented people of color experienced twice the rate of stereotyping of white and Asian people, while almost a third of women of color were passed over for promotion (the highest percentage of any group).

Some forms of unfair conduct are more strongly linked to turnover than others, leaving particular groups more vulnerable to the “revolving door” effect. The experiences most strongly related to turnover were stereotyping and bullying.

In general, stereotyping was consistently experienced by minority groups in general, but people of color predominated. LGBT employees were most likely to be bullied or publicly humiliated, which are strongly linked to toxic work environments and high turnover. In contrast, white and Asian people were most likely to perceive unfairness in management practices and leadership.

How to Start Making Change

The good news is that diversity and inclusion initiatives (D&I) can aid in retention: 62 percent of those surveyed said they would have stayed if their organization had made positive changes to the work environment and another 57 percent would have stayed if company culture had been more fair and inclusive.

D&I efforts are most effective when they saturate the organization from company culture to hiring practices to exit interviews.

D&I efforts are most effective when they saturate the organization from company culture to hiring practices to exit interviews. The different activities reinforce one another and create an entire experience of fairness and inclusion at work.

Yet, D&I initiatives must be comprehensive and executed well if they are to work. Here are our tips for success:

1. Crunch the Numbers

Before you can begin to make positive change, it’s important to get a handle on the situation at your company. Data gathered through lightweight polls, engagement surveys, and HR metrics can help track the experience of minority groups and ascertain a complete picture of what is working well and what could be improved. It is also essential to understand the actual costs of diversity turnover so you can show a compelling story to company managers and leaders who can provide necessary resources.

2. Create an Inclusive Culture

Setting expectations is key, and can be summed up in core diversity values and a code of conduct. This type of project requires buy-in at the highest level and a clear, written plan with concrete goals so it is important that those in leadership positions are on board and prepared to model an inclusive culture which prioritizes diversity.

3. Train Managers

Unfair experiences are often perpetrated by people in positions of responsibility so make sure to train managers at various levels to handle diversity issues and to actively manage the work environment. When it comes to individual development, fairly reward and promote people (based on merit not favoritism) with appropriate titles and responsibilities.

4. Evaluate and Continually Improve

The biggest key to success of your D&I plan lies in minority groups themselves. Listen to their experience, reflect back to them using their own words, and strive to understand their position without becoming defensive. Continue to gather data and feedback so you can keep improving over time.

As a workforce, we are truly stronger together — make sure talented people are included Click To Tweet

While unfairness is a major stumbling block to retention in the tech industry, it is possible to overcome an unfair company culture with thoughtful planning and effort. The payoff is well worth the time and energy because of the significant financial and social benefits. As a workforce, we are truly stronger together and should take the time to make sure talented people from all walks of life are included, supported, and fairly rewarded.

Empower your employees to recognize and combat their unconscious bias. Watch our webinar with MEC’s Marie-Claire Barker and global consultant Tanya Odom.

  • Chris Stark

    This subject has always been with us. I like your 4 steps to prevent unfair treatment such as stereotyping, bullying and exclusion. Now, let me add a 5th. My colleagues and I call it 3-Level Leadership, which involves targeted oversight by managers of how well their direct reports interact with their direct reports.