This article was written by Judith Staig, founder of ContentWrite. It is sponsored by:


The focus of diversity and inclusion programmes is often on hiring a more diverse workforce: initiatives such as promoting the industry to, and hiring graduates from, a wider range of universities, or creating non-graduate entry-level jobs can make a difference. But there is no point in attracting people at the entry level unless the working environment is inclusive and equitable, and makes them want to stay in the role – and even in the industry.

There is anecdotal evidence of a shortage of talent at the Senior Research Executive to Associate Director level in the research and insights sector. This is for a wide variety of reasons: companies are busy, some people have left the industry due to the pandemic, and some are happy in their roles and not willing to move. Sarah Penny, Partner at Daughters of Sailors Recruitment says, “At that middle level, the demand is currently far outweighing the supply. At the more junior end, so many people were furloughed or let go last year and found they could get jobs with comparable salaries outside of the industry. The companies that didn’t look after their staff have had their reputations tarnished, whereas the companies that took care of their employees on furlough – kept in touch regularly and sent them small gifts for example – are finding that their staff are more loyal and not moving.”

In this climate, retention becomes even more important. We know from the 2020 MRS diversity, inclusion and equality (DI&E) survey that experiences of inclusivity or otherwise are linked to retention. The survey showed that “compared with their white, straight non-disabled male counterparts, women and researchers from minoritised groups are three to four times more likely to have thought (either ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’) to leave their job because of concerns linked to DI&E, and are about three times more likely to have actually left their work as a result of discrimination or inappropriate behaviour.”

The survey analysis looked specifically at the researchers within the sample who were working independently or in micro-businesses (those with up to five employees) and found that some chose to do so in a response to “poor workplace practices, poor career progression, lack of flexibility and other forms of discrimination and inappropriate behaviour while working in larger organisations.”  This applied in the main to women and those with childcare responsibilities. In some cases, people had been made redundant and were either unable to find a new flexible role or saw it as an opportunity to go solo; others had left voluntarily to find the flexibility they needed.  There were also some mentions of leaving due to concerns based on other factors such as race, age, health, mental health and neurodiversity. It is likely that there are also people who’ve chosen to change careers and leave the industry entirely but, of course, they aren’t around anymore to take the survey.

“It’s easier to manage the aches and pains and other symptoms [of the menopause] if I am responsible for myself only… Being employed means always asking permission and/or explaining; I'm not prepared to do that any longer.”

“The market research agency I previously worked for tended to make older workers redundant first when downsizing…”

“As a person of colour and female, you always think about how others in your organisation are being given more opportunities. It is something that is always at the back of your mind…”

Survey verbatim responses[1]

Sarah says, “In my experience, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how successful the company is, if you don’t feel included or as if you belong in the company, you won’t stay. Companies need to respect the flexibility that people need for work/life balance, and also give people space to be vulnerable so they can be their whole selves at work.” Companies that can’t retain staff at any level will struggle, and it’s a vicious circle: being understaffed creates more difficult working conditions for those who remain, making them progressively less satisfied.

Retention is clearly about more than just DI&E, but making our workplaces inclusive and supportive for everybody is a great place to start. Here’s five things that companies can do to help retain a diverse workforce.

  1. Focus not just on diversity but on inclusivity. Some DI&E initiatives stop with getting people in the door – but this is just where DI&E begins. Inclusivity affects every element of the employee experience from hiring and on-boarding through to exit interview (or retirement). And as researchers, we understand how to think about customer experience and customer journeys – we need to think the same way about employee journeys and audit them for inclusivity.
  2. Embed inclusive cultures through inclusive leadership. From the CEO down, senior managers have to be committed to creating a culture of inclusivity and openness. Inclusive leaders understand that there are benefits for the whole company, not just individuals, when everyone feels welcome. Focusing on empathy can help leaders to become invested in inclusivity – everyone has had times when they have felt excluded - and most people have personal connections to people in marginalised groups.
  3. Make it safe to speak up. We need to listen to people’s experiences and learn. To do so, we need to create cultures that value honesty and open communications, where people are not only willing to speak up, but that it is expected that they will do so. Change has to happen in the minutiae, in the details of daily working life; micro-aggressions need to get noticed and called out by allies, and we all need to live and breathe inclusivity. It is hard to feel safe to speak out so we need more people to hold space for others to drive true belonging.
  4. Ask the hard questions. The survey showed that people in minoritised groups are disproportionately likely to have experiences such as being overlooked in meetings, being spoken over and being given lower grade work. So ask the questions about your organisation. Who gets invited to meetings and why? And who gets to speak and be heard? How does someone get a promotion or an opportunity? And how could this change to be more inclusive?
  5. Talk, share and collaborate. Yours won’t be the only organisation struggling to create a more inclusive culture. The more you talk about this with your peers, and the more you share resources and best practice, the more we can normalise conversations about inclusivity. The MRS DI&E Council news and resources website is a great place to find information, support and help.

Better inclusivity has an impact beyond the people who are being excluded. Companies spend less time, money and energy on recruitment and employees get to work in a more positive environment, which in itself engenders loyalty. Inclusivity may not solve all of your employee retention issues, but it will definitely make your company a better place to work.

  • [1] Responses to question 18d: Please explain how issues of Diversity, Inclusion & Equality impacted your decision to work independently or in a small organisation

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