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How to move the needle on racial diversity: You are doing it wrong

For at least the past 30 years, most law firms have claimed to prioritize workplace equity and the inclusion of minorities. Affinity groups, mentoring programs and implicit bias training have been deployed in an effort to diversify who is represented in private practice. Nevertheless, one report finds that, despite these efforts, “racialized” lawyers feel they “simply do not fit in at law firms.” This sentiment is supported by evidence that not only are these individuals underrepresented in senior positions such as partnerships, they face discrimination — including racial profiling — on a daily basis.

Where’s the gap?

What’s going wrong between intention on the part of firms to be equitable and inclusive and the reality, which sees only six per cent of racial minority lawyers make partner?

Ineffective strategies

Unconscious bias training tends to be the go-to strategy for firms hoping to make their recruitment and promotion practices bias-proof. As far as interventions go, it’s an attractive one. Recruiters and the hiring or promotion team attend a one-off seminar where they’re made aware of their biases under the assumption that awareness will translate into changed behaviour. Unfortunately, research on unconscious bias training reveals a different outcome altogether. In some cases (according to research here and here), these programs are associated with a drop in the likelihood that underrepresented groups are promoted. Studies show that bias training may also lead to a phenomenon called “moral licensing” where individuals unconsciously respond to having done something “good” by doing more of something “bad.”

Affinity groups are established in the hopes of creating a community of individuals inside a firm who share particular challenges and life experiences, where they can support one another and harness the resource accumulation potential that networks provide. However, studies reveal that these groups not only have little to no positive impact on career development, they can be negative in the context of the firm’s culture.

Loosely regulated mentorship programs are meant to provide associates with the guidance and feedback they need to succeed, and they are sometimes directed specifically at underrepresented groups. Despite these intentions, research indicates that encouraging senior staff to take responsibility for the professional development of employees can actually decrease the proportions of minorities in management. In those cases when mentors oversee multiple mentees, they tend to pay more attention and provide more enthusiastic support to those mentees who are socially similar to themselves, which just leads to the replication of the problem.

What works?

If “industry standard” practices don’t produce results but might actually be working against a firm’s objective of increasing representation of racial minorities, what should be done? Research specific to the legal industry proves that a host of targeted interventions can nudge the needle in the right direction.

1. Accountability is a powerful driver when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Start by getting a baseline of your firm’s demographics: Who are you hiring and at what numbers? Who are you promoting, at what rates and to what positions? Publish the results internally (and externally, for added punch) along with targets and timelines for further reporting. When you have a clearer picture of where you stand, you can measure the effectiveness of any implementations against that starting point. You may also be able to pinpoint where things are going wrong; you will thus be better equipped to create targeted, tailored strategies.

2. Re-think affinity groups and, instead, increase the networking capacity of your associates on the whole. At least one firm I am aware of offered to give their female associates free golf lessons to improve their ability to network on the course. “That’s a case of the tail wagging the dog,” commented a former partner, now special counsel at a local firm. He’s right. Instead of trying to mould your diverse associates to the “traditional” networking mode, change the setting so that equal footing is more likely.

3. Build carefully monitored, quality sponsorship programs that feature consistent feedback and quality control mechanisms. Research shows that white male associates benefit from informal mentoring, while persons of colour are more likely to be excluded from such opportunities, which is why sponsorship is key. A sponsor, unlike a mentor, leverages their professional clout and social capital to directly benefit the person who is sponsored as they advocate for the latter’s career development.

4. Inject bias interrupters into your recruitment programs. Ensure your role descriptions are inclusive and don’t induce qualified candidates to eliminate themselves unnecessarily based on implicit messages around “fit.” You can achieve this by using tools such as Talent Sonar or Applied. Blind applications to demographics and other details including name, age, address, gender, race, etc. Build and adhere to structured interviews and conduct them individually, instead of using panel interviews (which are shown to increase poor decision-making by fostering “group think”).

No single intervention is a silver bullet. The underrepresentation of racial minorities is the result of systemic discrimination. However, addressing discriminatory practices — one by one — nudges a firm toward the equity it wants and needs.

Dr. Kristen Liesch (BEd, PGradDip, PhD) is Blue Switch Consulting’s principal talent optimization consultant with practices in Canada and New Zealand.