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The post-pandemic job hunt: Will firms lose diverse talent?

After more than a year of staying put through uncertainty, employees may now be looking for new job opportunities. Ashleigh Webber looks at how law firms might keep diversity at the heart of their retention strategy.

As workplaces reopen and ‘normality’ begins to return, HR professionals will undoubtedly feel a sense of relief following a year and a half of disruption, uncertainty and tough decision-making.

But they may not be able to sit on their laurels just yet: they could be facing an exodus of staff as recruitment intentions pick up and employees act on their pent-up demand for a new role.

Recent research from HR software firm Workday found that almost a third of employees expect to look for a new employer after the pandemic. Some of the top reasons for this include not feeling fairly compensated at work and seeking better opportunities for training and development.

Younger employees especially feel they have missed out on opportunities over the past year. Forty-seven per cent of 18-34 year-olds are concerned about the opportunities they have been given at work, which may push them to look for pastures new.

Strides have been taken in improving diversity and inclusion in law and the wider professional services sector. Many firms may have set targets for the representation of certain groups at different levels, and a sudden migration of talent may see their progress reversed.

Re-evaluation

“People have been re-evaluating what’s important to them over the last year and a half, with some deciding that their current role isn’t providing the job satisfaction or work/life balance they were looking for, especially those who may be international employees and have not seen their families during the pandemic,” says Leana Coopoosamy, inclusion, diversity and wellbeing specialist (UK) at Clifford Chance.

She says that those who feel strongly that an organisation’s culture doesn’t work for them, and those that don’t see a flexible working policy that accommodates the way they like to work, are the most likely to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Many staff have grown used to the flexibility that home working has given them during the pandemic and may be concerned about what a return to the office looks like, especially if they’re being asked to work in an office regularly again, says Monick Evans, account director at Brook Graham, the D&I consultancy arm of Pinsent Masons.

“Apple employees recently wrote a letter strongly encouraging Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to rethink the decision that employees needed to be back in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays as from September. This example highlights the need for leaders to really listen and respond to employee requests as to where and how they can do their best work – and not make assumptions about how people are feeling,” she said.

Sheena Corry, head of D&I solutions design at Brook Graham, says it is highly likely that many women will want to think about new opportunities this summer in order to keep some of the flexibilities they’ve enjoyed.

“Women in particular have been hard hit by the pandemic with many working the ‘double shift’, that is to say a full day of work followed by hours spent caring for children and doing housework, with the added complication of childcare and home schooling,” she says.

“As a result, a recent McKinsey report found one in four women are now considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workplace entirely. Black women in particular have been disproportionately hit by the impact of the pandemic and instances of racial violence, which has placed a significant emotional toll on them.”

It appears that many organisations are looking to take advantage of this pent-up demand for new jobs. ManpowerGroup’s Employment Outlook Survey showed a 13-point increase in employers’ hiring confidence in the third quarter of 2021, driven by the easing of lockdown restrictions. In its finance and business services cohort, which law firms sit within, hiring intentions rose by 13 points to +8%.

Tailored interventions

Making sure talented individuals want to remain with a firm will involve listening to what employees from different groups want. Implementing tailored interventions, taking intersectionality into account, will also show employees that they are valued and should stay with an organisation.

Corry says: “Firms need to approach the needs of each diverse group with an intersectional lens, which means creating targeted and tailored approaches rather than assuming that ‘one size fits all’ and the experience of all women or Black employees is the same. It may be that certain groups need additional time off to accommodate increased demands at home, or to focus on their mental health and wellbeing.”

Coopoosamy says that understanding who their people are and what drives them will help inform firms about how they can retain certain groups. For example, family-friendly policies will be beneficial to both parents and staff who want to have a family one day.

“We’re working on lots of these areas through a variety of ways and have made bold commitments in 2020 regarding gender, ethnicity and LGBT+ specifically. An example of this is the focus groups we have run with Delta Alpha Psi to better understand the lived experiences of our employees, with a particular lens looking at race and ethnicity,” she adds.

Promoting hybrid working equality

Many law firms have embraced hybrid and flexible working practices over the past year and plan to take them forward post-pandemic. However, there are concerns that these could exacerbate some of the inequalities that sometimes push staff to leave an organisation.

A recent roundtable discussion Brook Graham held with clients identified numerous inclusion challenges that could emerge in the hybrid environment. Organisations need to tackle the biases that could evolve around “insiders” working in the office and “outsiders” working remotely because they have caring responsibilities, for example.

Corry says: “We recommended that managers need to be enabled to lead effectively in a virtual environment and be alert to the impact of bias and early warning signs of deteriorating mental health so they could offer the necessary support and modify working arrangements if required. This could take the form of ongoing learning programmes as well as peer-to-peer support through virtual networks.”

Formal policies around hybrid working patterns may also help reassure employees who prefer to work from home that they will not be placed at a disadvantage when it comes to the allocation of new projects and performance reviews.

“Reviewing scope and objectives at work in light of changed working patterns can help to alleviate the pressure that many women and Black colleagues feel to ‘outperform’ their White male colleagues,” Corry adds.

Firms with leaders that listen to what employees want from work will have a better chance at retaining diverse talent as hiring activity ramps up.

Evans says: “The real differentiator will lie with the role of leaders – how will they adapt their style to truly listen and respond to colleagues with different needs so that they get the best out of their teams? Maybe a Black colleague who prefers working at home to reduce the number of microaggressions they experience each day? Or a neurodiverse colleague who has benefitted from being able to work more virtually and is therefore resistant to being back in the office more? Or a colleague who is introverted and values more time to reflect on questions outside of a face-to-face team meeting?

“This requires leaders to demonstrate and role model inclusive leadership behaviours, including a willingness to be vulnerable and accept they don’t have all the answers; a willingness to delegate authority to engage their teams in finding the right solutions; and the patience and encouragement to let all voices be heard.”

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