Retaining BIPOC talent: It’s more than money

Myron King, chief integration officer, VMLY&R
Myron King, chief integration officer, VMLY&R

Higher titles and compensation are easy ways of explaining BIPOC job movement, but they are an oversimplification.

I have a confession: Until recently, I haven’t enjoyed recruiting BIPOC talent. 

You know that awful feeling when you bring a friend home, and your family doesn’t make them feel welcome? Well, like many, I’ve also felt this at work. 

When I’ve helped bring people into an agency, they are sometimes “welcomed” with microaggressions and biased performance evaluations. They are excluded from integration and development opportunities. To this day, I’m pained that I wasn’t more empowered to look after them, without running afoul of internal systems. 

As agencies suddenly wake up to racist cultures, there’s been a dramatic increase in demand for minority talent, compounded by a persisting hiring pinch across industries.

At VMLY&R, we recently ran a study to understand BIPOC talent’s motivations for leaving or staying in advertising. We surveyed 971 people who work in advertising and related fields. The research confirmed that Black people are being sought by headhunters at very high rates; in advertising in particular, that rate is 8.6 times higher than for white people. 

While it’s great that companies want to increase racial diversity, they must also create systems to empower and enable success. Higher titles and compensation are easy ways of explaining BIPOC job movement, but they are an oversimplification. 

We’d be naive to overlook the qualitative aspects of work life that make departing easier — or in some cases, inevitable. What I’ve learned is that no one person, department or cross-departmental task force can shoulder the “weight of welcome” on their own. The job of “belonging” belongs to all of us. 

The objectives of the research were to:

  • Understand why BIPOC employees are leaving (or staying) in advertising.
  • Determine if they change jobs at a higher rate than other industries, and why.
  • Reveal the final straw on why people leave, and what factors help them stay. 
  • Understand if reasons for staying or leaving differ between BIPOC and white people, and why.
  • Explore how our industry can do a better job retaining talent and helping employees thrive.  

I have some troubling truths to share, but they’re important truths we need to face. 

First, Black people in advertising (and adjacent industries) have worse relationships with their managers than white people. It’s well documented that people gravitate to people who “look like them,” and work bonds are further tied through joint experiences. 

This bias leads to unequitable promotions. In advertising, getting ahead tends to be more about good relationships and visibility. Whether it’s recognition for a job well done or access to more challenging and high-profile projects, the manager is usually the gatekeeper. And if that gatekeeper does not have a strong relationship with their Black team members, that hinders progression.

This points to another problem: Our appraisal systems aren’t set up to enable success for Black people. We need to relook at our appraisal systems and learn from other industries. Clearer goals, objectives and measurability could remove some dependence on manager relations. We must embrace anti-racist and anti-bias manager training. 

Second, across industries, Asian people are not progressing beyond the manager level. Only 11% of Asian respondents said they were director level or above, compared to more than 53% of Black and white respondents. In 2014, The Atlantic referred to this phenomenon as “the bamboo ceiling.” We believe it relates to the model minority myth that Asians work hard but aren’t natural leaders. We must challenge assumptions and reimagine organizational systems to empower them. 

The third key finding was that a “better work environment” was the No. 1 reason why people left their job, across ethnicities. This is surprising, as people might more openly talk about promotions and pay rises as a reason for leaving a job. We must define what “better work environment” means, because it is highly subjective. Black respondents in advertising are not necessarily looking to their job to provide a sense of culture, but this doesn’t mean that workplaces can just abandon cultural developments. 

We believe that Black talent have grown used to microaggressions and feeling “different,” and they have learned not to look to a primarily white workplace to provide them a sense of belonging. 

As Robin Diangelo explains in White Fragility, our systems are set up based on a white experience. Going forward, people in the majority will have to suspend their judgment and practice humility. By that I mean:

  • Trust less what you think you see, know or feel, and spend more time listening to diverse team members, rather than talking at them. Ask for input and feedback on non cultural asks more regularly. Encourage an “open line” for suggestions.
  • Build rapport with people unlike yourself through reciprocal conversations.
  • Commit to learning about anti-racist thinking and the ways you passively contribute to the problem. If you are still defensive about the term “anti-racist,”  run to this list of resources.

The job has only just begun. BIPOC employees at every section of identity must be empowered to stay in workplaces where they feel like they belong. 

Myron King is chief integration officer at VMLY&R.


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