Recently, after giving a talk for our book Did That Just Happen?!, we received a LinkedIn message from an attendee who was running up against a familiar roadblock. “Despite tons of advertising and outreach across our networks, our attempts to hire more people of color, queer employees, and neurodiverse people have failed,” she wrote. “We hoped a diverse team would build exponentially, but when we do manage to attract diverse talent, we can’t seem to keep them for very long. Do you have any suggestions for how to hire more diverse employees when our current pool is limited?”

We do. And it starts with a story about fish.

When I (Stephanie) was a kid, my family had a tropical fish aquarium. The colorful fish lived harmoniously together in an intricate space with hideaway ornaments, caves, and reefs. Periodically, we’d go in search of a new species to introduce to the aquarium, always the start of a long, slow process. Growing a healthy tropical fish aquarium entails a series of steps that cannot be skipped. Failure to acclimate a new fish to the environment, for example, could disrupt the entire ecosystem. We also had to prepare our existing fish family to welcome the newcomers, or they could be quite inhospitable—a lesson we sometimes learned the hard way. The consequences of rushing ahead were painful: Not only did the newcomers fail to thrive, but they frequently didn’t survive at all.

It’s an anecdote that’s felt particularly relevant over the past few years, as many companies have thrown themselves into quick-fix strategies to address the lack of diversity in their workforce. We refer to this approach as “diversity by numbers,”a common method where companies primarily focus on increasing the number of employees with marginalized identities without addressing company culture.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this strategy doesn’t work. Increasing the number of folks with marginalized identities without first creating a more inclusive, culturally responsive culture is a recipe for failure. We all want to reap the benefits of a gloriously diverse workforce, but like the aquarium, we must first prepare our existing employees to warmly welcome, and successfully collaborate with, the new employees. Otherwise, new diverse talent is likely to experience “pioneer” status (being the first or only person of their identity), encounter numerous identity-related aggressions (IRAs), be tapped to educate the rest of the workforce on all things related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), burn out, and leave.

Here’s where the aquarium metaphor ends: Unlike fish, people communicate about their workplace experiences. In short order, word will spread that your organization is oppressive and inhospitable to people of marginalized identities.

A more promising approach recognizes that a homogeneous workforce is a result of long-standing structural and systemic issues, and slows down to thoughtfully and methodically address them. It rejects the short-term gains of diversity by numbers in pursuit of more gratifying and sustainable change. And it understands that doing anything less can cause harm to the very people you’re trying to attract.

Instead of focusing on interviewing more people of color, a company could first ask: “Why aren’t we diverse to begin with?” We recommend that organizations seek honest answers to this question and address what might be inhospitable to both the recruitment and retention of diverse talent.

Answers will vary, but may include the following: “We know that diverse teams are more effective, but we are a predominantly white organization with little experience interacting with BIPOC professionals.” “Identity-related aggressions run rampant here and go unaddressed.” “We’ve been able to recruit diverse training classes, but can’t convert trainees to permanent staff.” “Underrepresented staff describe a culture in which they don’t feel valued or supported.” “Our diverse talent is disproportionately represented in entry-level positions.”

Do any of these problems sound familiar? Once you’ve identified your organization's barriers to diversity, share these findings with your workforce and use them to inform next steps. But—and this is critical—those next steps must match the identified barrier. For example, if underrepresented staff describe a culture fraught with IRAs where they don’t feel valued, the organization should focus on creating a culture shift toward greater inclusivity and belonging. Strategies might include:

  • Prioritize healing, support, and empowerment of diverse staff who have been harmed. Create spaces where folks can share stories with colleagues who share their identity, with the goal of building to a place where people can have (facilitated) reparative conversations across the company.
  • Invest in ongoing workshops that establish learning cohorts and specifically target oppressive behaviors.
  • Reinforce learning of new skills by integrating practice opportunities into your day-to-day operations. For example, you might follow a company-wide workshop on addressing IRAs with team meetings where every person practices responding to a hypothetical scenario.
  • Create standards and expectations for increased system-wide education and engagement, such as requiring employees to participate in a certain number of workshops per year and asking employees to re-write their job descriptions to include the ways they’re promoting DEI.

Whatever you decide to do, be prepared to commit resources and strategic planning to it. Your barriers to inclusivity exist for a reason. That reason is likely entrenched, systemic, and structural. You will need to meet it with sustained intensity and innovation.

And transparency, especially when cultivating new partnerships for building more diverse pipelines and recruiting diverse talent. Sometimes, organizations are reluctant or embarrassed to admit to “not having been diverse” or “unable to convert trainees to permanent staff.” Odds are, your organization's DEI pain points are well known to external folks in your industry. People will appreciate the organization that can authentically describe their DEI areas of growth. It’s okay to say, “We’re not who we want to be. But we’re committed to change.” Just make sure you can articulate how you’ll get there.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth are Harvard-affiliated licensed clinical psychologists and authors of the top-rated human-resources and business book, Did That Just Happen?! Beyond Diversity-Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations. They co-founded Twin Star Diversity Intersectional Trainers, through which they consult globally to organizations seeking practical solutions to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.