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Law Practice Today

October 2022

DEIB Separation Anxiety

Lori Hymowitz


  • Use a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging lens to illuminate why employees are leaving your firm.
DEIB Separation Anxiety

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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) programs consist of many layers. They include months dedicated to specific groups such as Black History, Pride, or Women’s History.  They also deal business-specific issues such as recruitment, hiring, and separation. While law firms and other businesses emphasize recruitment and hiring, it is equally as important to focus and address DEIB issues and concerns regarding separation from employment. Several points of interest fall under the separation umbrella.

For this article I will focus on voluntary separation (quitting) versus termination. There has been an uptick in the discussion of the disparity between organizations that make public efforts to recruit and hire diverse staff and the fact that these new hires are the first to be let go under the traditional business practice of last in, first out (LIFO). Of equal concern is providing ongoing support to keep the diverse hires. This is why the focus should be under the DEIB umbrella, not just on diversity. It is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.

First, consider the impact on diverse staffing by following the traditional LIFO practice when we need to make staffing reductions.  Many companies (including law firms) have made a concerted effort over the past few years to actively and more effectively recruit more diverse people. That has been great for opening doors. However, the doors have only been open a relatively short time. When businesses, including law firms, lay off employees, the lowest-hanging fruits continue to be new(er) hires. Given that a higher percentage of new hires are also diverse means the impact on diverse hires is greater. It also impacts how organizations are perceived. It makes it appear as if the more recent diverse hires were nothing but window dressing.  any major corporations have made it their policies over the past few years to require the law firms they hire to have a certain percentage of diverse staffing. When the first staff to be fired/laid off are the diverse new hires this can cause law firms to lose out on several levels. We lose out on getting the diverse input from having different voices at the table. We can also lose clients, which in turn could lead to further reductions in staff.

A better way to address staffing reductions would be to look at factors such as productivity and the impact that staffing reductions have on remaining employees. When the first people fired don’t look like the people in the C-suite, this could create a culture where certain faces and voices are afraid to engage, fearing that it could draw unnecessary attention their way. This leads us to the other important piece we need to consider when addressing employee separation. That is voluntary separation.

Considering the entire DEIB umbrella is crucial in examining why employees voluntarily leave. By strategically including DEIB as underlying philosophies we work smarter and better. Most organizations, law firms included, understand why a diverse workforce is incalculably valuable. Things tend to fall apart when we need to address equity, inclusion and belonging.  There is a quote that has been attributed to Arthur Chan: “Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is an outcome.” I am going to focus on this expression when addressing voluntary separation as it applies to keeping employees.

A related and equally important DEIB lens is the following quote: “Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice. Belonging is having that voice be heard.”  Law firms and other organizations are addressing the first prong when opening seats at the table. However, if employees do not believe they have a voice and that their voice is not heard they do not feel valued. If employees do not feel valued they do not want/need to stay.

Each employee’s need to be heard will be different. Just because an employee seemingly fits into boxes A, 1 and green does not mean that the only things that matter to them are things that specifically involve A, 1 and green. If  you only have one to three employees who are “diverse” it is not their job to be the ambassadors for any specific classification. For example, Cookie Monster loves cookies. That doesn’t mean that all monsters love cookies. Telly Monster might love grapes. One person or a sampling of people do not represent an entire group. Conversely, Cookie Monster may not choose to eat bird seed but he is a good friend of Big Bird so he wants to make sure that Big Bird has access to bird seed and seating for tall animals. In other words, just because you or employee X are not specifically a part of a given demographic does not mean that you or employee X do not care about that group of people.

The best way to address the needs of our employees is to truly listen. We cannot afford to be defensive. We also must be true allies and speak up when our colleagues do not feel comfortable. We can do many things. For example, as we begin to engage in more in-person events, let us ensure that we consider the needs of the employees we want to include. Try to schedule events and meetings at times and places that work for the folks we want to include. Make sure that the spaces are accessible to all. A recent conference had COVID kits for the people attending in their hotel rooms and registration so that all had masks and testing supplies and everyone could feel comfortable and safe. If we are having events with food make sure that there are options for people with a variety of dietary needs. I worked with a law firm that had monthly breakfasts at a restaurant that was a few blocks from the firm. The restaurant had many food options for all dietary needs. The firm paid their temporary employees for their time as well as for the food. It was a great example of making all employees feel that their time and needs were important.

Unfortunately, all firms will lose employees at some point. The key is that the separation be handled mindfully. By using a DEIB lens, we can work with our employees to make these difficult decisions in a manner that honors and respects them.