The Role of Cultural Empathy in Recruitment & Retention

best practice communication culture diversity equity inclusion recruitment retention Jan 20, 2024

Surface level and deep-level diversity both play integral roles in successful recruitment and retention processes.  

I have been pondering this idea of surface-level diversity vs. deep-level diversity a lot lately.  Mostly because it is right in front of our faces daily, no matter what sector we work within. 

But how often do we think about it within the context of recruitment and retention?

“Surface level diversity is defined as the characteristics that we can notice about each other that distinguish us.  Deep level diversity by definition are the differences in beliefs, values, attitudes, etc., that do affect much more directly how a person behaves,”  (PSU, 2017).

I recently met with the Executive Director for a national nonprofit serving the education sector.  He was very curious about how he could increase the percentage of people of color within his programs.  His dilemma was centered around not only attracting people of color – but seeing successful matriculation through the hiring process and being retained.  He commented that he just wasn’t sure what they were doing wrong and was exploring whether or not there may be biases in their process.

Now, I’m not sure of the recruitment, hiring or retention process and practices they currently have in place.  But, I can tell you that this leader genuinely wanted his staff and program members to reflect the population they were serving.  Here are some questions I asked him that I would encourage you to ask yourself:

  • Who created your process?
  • How do you determine if someone is “qualified” in the first place?
  • Who determined the metrics for what a “good fit” will look, sound and think like?

Next, I advised him to explore the ideas of surface level and deep level diversity.  Often, organizations are focused solely on demographic recruitment (race, gender, age, etc.)  This often misses the mark with the most influential aspects of diversity which are psychological (personality, values, abilities, etc.)  Demographic variables can perpetuate stereotypical and prejudiced characterizations whereas deep-level diversity focuses on the person (Source: Harvard Business Review).  I personally believe that effective recruitment, hiring and retention processes uphold elements of both surface level and deep level diversity.

Finally, I challenged him to consider if their organization had a culture of knowledge sharing. 


Sometimes, targeted recruitment efforts can be very successful at attracting people.  However, once those recruits matriculate through the onboarding process, creativity will only be enhanced if all team members maintain a culture of knowledge sharing and a commitment to cultural empathy embedded through daily leadership actions, behaviors, norms, and language. 

For example, I can't stand the term "person of color". I fall into this category as a white-passing Latina. My trials and tribulations in life are not minimal, however, to contend that I face the same discrimination, implicit biases, and microaggressions of my Black family, friends and colleagues just isn't true. We are perceived differently in the world - even standing united. 

An organization rooted in cultural empathy must be driven by the core influencers in an organization. Not solely "leaders" who are considered such by title alone. For example, if a new employee grew up in the neighborhood where they are working and the organization directly serves but never shares their knowledge with coworkers – then the team is not improving together.  This can create division and silos of knowledge if the proper culture of connection, collaboration, and creation has not been developed through culturally empathetic practices. Deeper still? If teammates know their colleagues have knowledge they do not - why aren't they connecting (genuinely) and getting compassionately curious by asking and building relationships to learn about their teammates lived experiences and cultural knowledge? 

How do you go about truly knowing and learning with the whole person in mind – not just the surface or deep-level intricacies?  This is where cultural empathy becomes essential.  Without a philosophy for recruitment and retention that is based in the principles of cultural empathy, you will only be able to lead your people so far. 

Our team's working definition of practicing cultural empathy is: The more deeply we discover ourselves — the more expansive our heart space can be to go deeper in our understanding of others. This is the heart of empathy. 

Our team specifically teaches the skills of better understanding ourselves through cultural context and communication so we can more deeply connect with others and share our mutual AND diverse lived experiences. We call this cultural empathy. 



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