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When Diversity and Inclusion Gets Personal

February 1, 2016

By Karla Hignite

To serve increasingly diverse student populations and to prepare students for participation within a multicultural society, colleges and universities must seek to recruit faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. That is often easier said than done. The search process, a core focus for every institution, requires attention at each stage.

For instance, your institution may do a great job of outreach for diversifying your talent pool, but if measures are not taken to ensure that your culture is welcoming once your new hires arrive, your upfront efforts may do little good, says Leah Burns, chief development officer for CUPA-HR. "In far too many cases, a new hire leaves after only a year or two because he or she doesn't feel welcomed and included, either within the department or unit or within the fabric of the larger campus community. As an organization, you don't want to go through the intensive processes of a search and selection only to have talented employees leave shortly thereafter."

Where attracting a diverse faculty and staff works best is where important work has been done upfront to build agreement about what diversity means to the institution, says Burns. Thinking about diversity and inclusion in new ways requires an interruption to our ingrained behaviors or assumptions, or our unconscious bias, says Burns. "On some level, we each carry unconscious bias in our responses and value judgments, because the lens through which we each see and experience the world will vary."

Combatting Bias

Unconscious bias proved a topic of interest for those attending the 2015 Women's Leadership Institute (WLI) in Amelia Island, Florida, this past December. The event's programming examined the skills and relationships needed to empower women in their respective fields in higher education to help their institutions respond successfully to the unique challenges of today. Among those challenges: To recognize and appreciate the roles and perspectives of a broad range of higher education professionals.

Burns, a presenter at the event, addressed participants on the topics of unconscious bias and enhancing inclusion in the search process. One way in which unconscious bias might creep into candidate selection is in the search committee process itself, says Burns. "Because individual members of a search committee may bring their individual biases to bear on the decision, it is important for the committee as a whole to maintain awareness of any biases that exist," says Burns.

A number of WLI participants shared stories of disappointment from their own experiences of being perceived in a singular fashion, including in committee selection processes, notes Burns. "Several participants recounted how they had been asked to participate in various campuswide work groups because they've been identified as a member of a particular race, ethnic, or gender group, or are differently abled, and so forth," says Burns. "While their hope had been that they were asked to participate because of their expertise, finding out that the primary reason for their selection was due to the minority group they represented was hurtful."

Yet, instead of becoming resentful, these women shared a resolve to go forward and use their experiences to make the best contributions possible based on their expertise, says Burns. "Rather than allowing their disappointment to fester, many have come to understand that their leadership positions provide leverage they can use in positive ways to give voice to unconscious bias." Making a personal commitment to encourage others to expand their views requires a willingness to have an honest and positive conversation about how a particular situation made them feel and how others are likely to feel, notes Burns.

Onboarding is Crucial

Search committee members need a big lens to attract candidates looking for jobs within the institution or department that don't currently have others in their minority group represented, says Burns. One question every search committee must ask is whether the institution can receive a prospective hire as a whole person. "What commitment to diversity and to a candidate's specific needs are evident?" posits Burns. "The onboarding piece extends beyond welcoming your new hire into his or her department or unit to what it means for a particular individual to feel part of the larger campus community and to have opportunities to engage with others with whom he or she might share interests," she adds. What support and useful information does your institution provide about the community and about opportunities for involvement?

Leadership Required

Realizing progress in your efforts to diversify your campus community will also require a willingness to approach the process of recruiting and hiring talent differently, with new practices and broadened perspectives, and brainstorming new ways to attract diverse candidates that don't simply rely on past practice and outlets with which others are already familiar, argues Andy Brantley, CUPA-HR president and CEO. Rather than focusing on regulatory and compliance concerns, the goal should be to empower people to better infuse diversity and inclusion to create a more holistic approach organizationwide, advises Brantley.

"Making diversity and inclusion a campus priority requires that it must also be a priority for everyone who hires or manages others," adds Brantley. "Everyone is responsible, not only HR or your chief diversity officer, and leaders must be the ones to emphasize this shared responsibility and to help others engage in conversation."

From pre-search activities, to the way candidate selection is addressed, to onboarding, leaders must be willing to test new approaches to cultivating diverse applicant pools, broaden outreach and recruitment efforts, and conduct searches in ways that overcome barriers and biases, says Brantley. CUPA-HR's new e-learning course, "Building a Successful, More Inclusive Search," addresses how institutions can attract diverse candidate pools. A companion facilitated version for use with faculty and staff groups is also now available and can be adapted to address the unique challenges and goals of each campus community. "Because no two campuses are alike in terms of their needs and readiness to address and engage in issues of diversity and inclusion, leaders can select key elements of the course to use at will," says Brantley.

In the coming months, CUPA-HR will launch its Creating Inclusive Communities project that will share the reflections and experiences of 25 diverse higher education HR leaders as a means to encourage campuses to value the similarities and differences of all individuals within its community. "We hope campus leaders will see this as a model they can use to help create a more cohesive, inclusive community for their faculty, staff, and students through the sharing of personal stories," says Brantley.

Giving voice to personal experiences helps community members understand and value similarities and differences. In many cases these personal stories resonate and can help others become more willing to engage in conversations they otherwise might avoid, says Brantley. "Only when campus constituents see and value one another as individuals can they begin an authentic dialogue about what diversity and inclusion means for them and to the life of their institution."