This question just makes me tired all over. It’s not just because the question, as asked, frames the retention of Black talent as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be elevated. It’s because the question ignores the reality that Black talent and the rest of the talent force want the same things: to be safe, valued, and heard in the workplace.
From the late 1800s up until the 1980s, miners used to take caged canaries into the mines to detect the presence of dangerous gasses. With this in mind, some Wile E. Coyote-type engineer invented the canary resuscitator. Basically, it was a canary cage with an oxygen tank designed to bring the canaries back from the brink of death so they, and their miner caretakers, could face another day.
Apparently, there was a “canary retention problem.”
But the miners’ careers were pretty dismal as well. Consider this: Between 1900 and 1945, there were more than 1,000 US coal mining deaths every year—and more than 90,000 total coal-related deaths during that period. Ultimately, this wasn’t about fixing the canaries or the miners. These data clearly reveal it was about fixing the inefficiencies of mine operations. In other words, don’t fix the canaries. Fix the mines.
So, while I typically get paid for answering what has become a tiresome question to all of us who work in the inclusion, equity, and diversity space, the mission is more important than the money. For today only, I’m running a special. Here are a few free tips on how you should reframe, revise, recalibrate, rethink, and reexamine the question about retaining Black talent.
Reframe the question
Why? Because deep down you know you don’t have a “Black talent retention” problem or a talent problem at all. Your talent has a problem with you. People don’t quit companies; they quit managers. If you and your leadership team have been paying attention during the past year, you know that almost five million people quit their jobs in 2021, and according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trend is expected to continue. The reasons for this mass resignation can be forcefully summed up in the words of Howard Beale, the hero of the 1976 movie Network: “I’m a human being, goddammit! My life has value!” Company leaders and managers ignore this cry for help at their peril.
Revise your talent management model
Employees shouldn’t need a gas mask and a canary just to survive the American workplace. A model of talent abundance led to decades of talent abuse in the twentieth century, and this traditional perspective on talent management continues to foster bias and exclusion while fueling highly toxic cultures that corrode creativity, innovation, and growth. The twenty-first century—driven by the knowledge, information, and culture industries—demands that company leaders and managers adopt a talent scarcity model that puts the onus on them to acknowledge and nurture the human complexity of a talent force that is the engine of growth in a multicultural and global market.
Recalibrate to focus on inclusion first
The focus on diversity without first pursuing inclusion harms everyone. The public focus on the retention of Black talent, while well-intended, is deepening the chasm between Black talent and their white counterparts, many of whom were primed by the talent abundance model to see diversity as a zero-sum game. More importantly, this question suggests that Black and white talent don’t want the same things from their work experience and careers. Yet, according to a recent McKinsey study, both Black and white employees, 67% and 63% respectively, report a lack of senior sponsorship “despite 87% of our participating companies reporting that they have sponsorship programs in place.” Though developed through the lens of the needs of Black talent, the study goes on to reveal a not-so-surprising consensus around career dissatisfaction and the desired future of both Black and white talent.
Reexamine your credibility
No one is saying you’re lying about your commitment to inclusion, equity, and diversity—but credibility isn’t always about honesty. Inconsistently applied inclusion, equity, and diversity efforts can undermine impact and deepen the trust gap between you, your leadership team, and managers. Amplified by years of talent abuse, this trust gap will be hard to overcome without transformational change in the way you recruit, hire, evaluate, and advance talent. You might think this crisis of credibility is a relatively new phenomenon among your white employees, but it has been, is, and will continue to be a lingering reality with Black, Brown, and female talent who have suffered the consequences of these inconsistencies more acutely.
Reimagine your relationship with your talent force
The relationship between your leadership and your talent force should be a two-way street, not a highway and a bike path. Black talent feels the frustration of decades of neglect, managerial ineptitude, and indifference more keenly than their white colleagues. However, the lack of career satisfaction reported by the talent force as a whole fuels resistance to diversity efforts, which then pushes Black talent out the door. The key to retaining talent is fostering a corporate culture where all talent sees real benefits from individualized, equitable programs that support job and career success for everyone, and a leadership mindset that elevates the relevant differences among talent to reflect and meet the needs of a multicultural and global market.
So, in answer to the question at hand: Stop trying to fix the canaries. Like Harry Beale, the miners, and the canaries are telling you: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Lauren Tucker PhD is the founder of the inclusion-first agency Do What Matters.