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Create inclusive workplace to maintain, grow diverse workforce

Ask, gather information, assess and change.  Those are the basic steps for organizations to create a more inclusive environment for diverse lawyers, provided by diversity consultant Vernā Myers in her ABA presentation, “Intentional Inclusion:  Key to Member Retention.”  While the advice she shares is addressed to bar association leadership, Myers’ tips are useful for any organizational setting—including law firms.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance,” says Myers.

What exactly is an inclusive environment? According to Myers, feeling welcomed and treated with respect, feeling included and integrated, having equal access to opportunities, and being able to contribute ideas and concerns are all part of inclusion.  As Myers describes it, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

“Diversity is about who is represented in an organization, whereas inclusion speaks more to who is respected, expected and integrated into an institution,” Myers explains in course materials related to the program. “Diversity may be the conscious method that your organization is sending, but the lack of inclusion can be communicated easily and sometime unconsciously.”

A lack of inclusion can be damaging to organizations, leading to low productivity and attrition.

Much of the exclusion that occurs in organizations is unintentional, says Myers, explaining that implicit biases can sometimes result in small slights or indignities against others.  Called micro-inequities, these small acts can accumulate and develop a weight of their own when they happen over and over. Since they are so subtle, they are difficult to address.

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Some examples of micro-inequities:

  • “I don’t think of you as gay. You seem normal to me.”
  • “That was great, [person of color]. I’m surprised you can hold your own with all those white guys.”
  • “Aren’t you worried about living in that part of town?”

Achieving an inclusive environment first involves gaining the awareness of who’s struggling to survive. Asking simple questions—Is there something you need? What are your concerns? What are your goals? What role would you like to play?—is a good start.

Myers elaborates that firms should develop inclusive processes where the perspectives of others are solicited, respected and integrated into how the environment operates. 

Among her advice on information gathering:

  • Have open dialogues—periodically;
  • Utilize focus groups and interviews, especially through third parties, where diverse lawyers will generally feel freer to speak more openly;
  • Conduct surveys, specifically with underrepresented groups, but also with the majority group in order to have a basis for comparison.

Use the information you gather to assess your organization and make changes, continues Myers.

Specific actions that organizations can take include:

  • Holding orientations and receptions to foster connection, decipher culture and learn unspoken rules;
  • Implementing “posses,” in which classes are created of individuals who go through orientation and programming together;
  • Establishing diversity training for all leaders and staff;
  • Adhering to the NFL’s “Rooney” rule that requires a diverse slate to fill certain positions and opportunities; and
  • Developing a mentoring program.

The CLE program can be purchased here.  

Intentional Inclusion:  Key to Member Retention” is presented by the Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, Office of the Executive Director, Section Officers Conference and Center for CLE.

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