Associations Progress on Diversity, But Work Remains

Trade groups, like much of America, believe in diversity and inclusion. The road to achieving it calls for insight and commitment.

June 30, 2017 – Across America, many organizations say they are looking to change the makeup of their workforce in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and age, but in the end many fall far short. Eighty-one percent of respondents to a recent survey of trade associations and professional societies, in fact, said they view the concept as part of their group’s core values, but 45 percent admit that they have no action plan to make it become reality.

The survey, “Diversity and Inclusion, Core Values Among Associations,” conducted by search firm Vetted Solutions and George Mason University School of Law, is shedding new light on the efforts – or lack thereof — of associations to include diversity and inclusion into their daily operations and their plans for recruiting and staff development. “The study results indicate associations are making positive strides,” said James Zaniello, president and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based executive recruitment firm, “but many are still working through how best to operationalize their commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

The study is among the first to qualitatively analyze the state of diversity and inclusion efforts in the association world, and offers steps to improve the situation. Indeed, associations are an ideal petri dish to understand the bigger picture of what is happening with diversity and inclusion across the country.

“These organizations represent all demographics and literally every aspect of American life,” said Dr. David K. Rehr, senior associate dean and professor at George Mason’s law school, in the foreword to the report. “They understand the variety of benefits associated with diversity and inclusion, including better decision-making and greater insights with a diversity of ideas and backgrounds.”

Benchmarks are Lacking

The study’s numbers speak of an association world that shows a willingness to make changes but, basically, has failed to achieve them, at least in full. Seventy-three percent of the groups surveyed, for example, reported that they have installed comprehensive policies regarding diversity and inclusion. But 70 percent said their associations lack effective benchmarks or measures to evaluate the impact of their efforts. Meanwhile, 84 percent said that their group focuses on diversity and inclusion because it is “the right thing to do,” but 55 percent said that finding a diverse pool of qualified job candidates remains a challenge.

Diversity and inclusion, in fact, ranked near the top of the groups’ priorities, landing in third place (76 percent), behind only the need to deliver on the organization’s mission (93 percent) and meeting or exceeding annual revenue goals (78 percent).


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Although the associations predominantly said they viewed diversity and inclusion as “the right thing to do” (84 percent), “making great business sense” (55 percent), “important for our external reputation,” (53 percent) and “demonstrating our understanding of the diversity of the country” (51 percent), only 19 percent considered it “helpful to our profitability.”

“That seems to indicate the connection between diversity and inclusion efforts to the profitability or success of the organization may not be readily evident to all,” said the report. “But the trend is moving in that direction.”

Using the associations’ responses, the study offers a series of actions the groups’ leaders can follow to achieve their goals for diversity and inclusion and show substantive progress. Among the steps the study suggests: establish goals and metrics, measure impact and effectiveness of diversity and inclusion programs, map out a plan to achieve specific and targeted goals, systemically cultivate the talent pipeline, and thoroughly incorporate diversity and inclusion practices throughout the group’s work, including onboarding, retention and promotion.

Suggestions For Change

The report offers five related topic areas for moving an organization forward to create a more diverse workforce:

1) Pay attention to diversity and inclusion when creating the job specification. Watch for biases in the language of the job description. Be aware of whether the language is overly restrictive or if it is open and accessible. Look beyond the job requirements alone for skills and experiences that might attract a specific pool of diverse candidates.

2) Think about a strategy for recruitment and outreach that will boost the candidate pool’s diversity. Is it advertised in the most productive places? Are the sources for suggestions on would-be candidates reflective of the diversity that one’s group is seeking? When speaking about an opening with sources, are essential skills and knowledge distinguished from what those that can be obtained through experience?

3) Heed the interview process. Outline steps and frame questions for candidates that will promote a proactive approach to diversity and inclusion. Look for ways to minimize bias in interview questions and seek ways to honor a candidate’s greater set of experiences. Be forthright with staffers involved in the interview. Talk about issues like unconscious bias, gender stereotypes and assumptions about individuals from various backgrounds.

4) See the onboarding process through the viewpoint of diversity and inclusion. “Are assumptions made during this process that might make some new employees feel excluded or uncomfortable?” said the report. “Is the diversity and inclusion policy reviewed with staff as part of employee orientation? Does senior staff discuss how to address situations and comments that challenge the value of diversity or create a non-inclusive environment? What is the process for staff to comfortably voice these concerns?”

5) Evaluate where diversity lies in an organization. Consider where diversity ranks. Is it found only at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy? Does the organization have diversity at the top levels but less so in mid-management? “If organizations can identify structurally where diversity does and does not exist, it can challenge itself on how it is guiding, supporting and providing development opportunities for all staff so that they are better prepared for career advancement,” said the report.


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Moving Forward

The authors are optimistic about associations and diversity. The potential for real change is there, they said. “The good news is associations have become adept at leading through uncertainty,” said Mr. Zaniello. “Oftentimes they are more nimble than their corporate counterparts, so they are better able to be the change they want to see in the world. There is a real opportunity for the association community to exhibit true diversity and inclusiveness and become the standard bearers.”

“The path ahead is to continue to be thoughtful and deliberate about diversity and inclusion,” the report said in their conclusion. “Engage in diversity and inclusion efforts both inside and outside of the work environment. Expand horizons not only professionally, but also socially, to widen outlooks and opportunities. Talk to people no one else is speaking with. Use challenges within the association or industry as opportunities to educate, learn and develop solutions.”

The survey was distributed to more than 3,000 people working in the association sector, with 227 completing it. That, said Dr. Rehr, gives it statistical significance and points to directional trends. The study’s margin of error was 6.25 percent.

“Early feedback from clients is that they are sharing this report with their boards to start or continue discussions on the topic as well as their senior staff in order to ensure their association is looking at this throughout the organization” Mr. Zaniello said. “A number of associations have shared with us that for them, the next step is looking at how they can help the industry or profession they serve develop a more inclusive workforce.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Chase Barbe, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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