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Building a Better Future: A Blueprint for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Autism Service Providers

In these times of significant staffing challenges, autism service providers across the country are re-examining their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices. DEI are central HR issues that foster organizational well-being and improve recruitment and retention. Research has proven that DEI can improve employee engagement, improving outcomes for clients and families. Even with this clear connection to treatment outcomes, Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) are not required to take any training on diversity in their treatment approach. It is up to the providers to offer both training and support DEI practices. This article presents a blueprint for DEI action and policy for autism service providers. First, a quick look at what these popular terms mean. Diversity is our collective differences and similarities, including individual characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, and backgrounds. Diversity has historically focused on race and ethnicity but should include all dimensions, such as sexual orientation, gender, and disabilities.

Fatou Njie-Jallow, MHA

Fatou Njie-Jallow, MHA

Equity provides all employees and clients with fair and contextually appropriate opportunities and resources to attain their full potential. Inclusion is an active, intentional, and ongoing effort that ensures full participation and an experience of belonging for every employee and client.

A DEI program involves three multi-step phases: 1) Discovery and Analysis; 2) Strategic Plan and Execution; 3) Measurement and ROI. The knowledge gained from each stage will identify opportunities for improvement, educate stakeholders, and drive benefits that result in a better organization. These phases are repeated over time because the learning and improvements are ongoing.

To realize any progress on DEI, senior leaders must first acknowledge that the existing societal inequities will also directly impact the experience of providers and those who receive services. Without that perspective, it will be challenging to envision and enact new ways of leading.

Discovery and Analysis

The first step is about discovery, gaining awareness of the types of diversity within and across groups, and the context in which diversity, equity, and inclusion play out for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole. Typically, a DEI director and committee spearhead the efforts.

The discovery process comprises board, executive, management, staff, and family meetings; demographic and opinion surveys; classroom observations; and HR policy and data collection. There will often be broad internal support for DEI with the recognition that much work needs to be done. Management must invest in DEI as part of the operating model. It is not merely an HR checkbox but a way the company does business.

It is important to obtain objective data to underlie the subjective feelings people express. Such data is analyzed to evaluate areas for DEI improvement. For example, the talent lifecycle process should integrate HR operational data (hiring rates, promotion, performance evaluation, access to training, internal mobility, attrition rates, and use of employee benefits) and experience data (employee experience rating, engagement, intention to stay, feedback on organizational culture, growth potential, and career opportunities) to understand all the moments that matter through a DEI lens.

Strategic Plan and Execution

Based on information and data gathered in the Discovery stage, the provider can design and execute a strategic plan for DEI improvement. This entails diversity and cultural training, human resource policies, and hiring and retention practices. The strategic plan should include measurable goals and outcomes. Examples include percentage increases in representation, improved employee survey scores, and higher employee retention. The goals will be measured, and return-on-investment tracked in the next stage of the DEI program.

Facilitator-led executive and staff DEI training build foundational awareness, leadership competencies, and critical practices needed to create an inclusive culture. The training will help leaders and staff align systems, infrastructure, and expectations.

The next level of training is education and awareness for all employees with a DEI curriculum. The goal is to embed DEI thinking and practices in everything the provider does. Having a shared understanding of DEI goals is crucial to foster a top-down, ground-up inclusive culture. Many providers establish a DEI web page for resources and communications about DEI happenings to reflect the importance of DEI to the organization.

The DEI Director and human resources department are the center points for the DEI strategic plan and execution. Take a deep dive into how HR systems and processes are implemented and identify areas where bias or inequity may exist in the employee lifecycle. Recruitment, onboarding, development, retention, and exit practices should all be viewed from a DEI perspective.

Diversity hiring panels can bring needed DEI perspectives. An effective mentorship program is a key to increasing connections and a sense of belonging. Reassess benefits, work-life balance, and flexibility. Consider the power of transparency in job design, classification, and compensation.

On the promotion front, candidate selection should be blinded, and skill-based interviews should be added. The retention focus should include promotion rates, talent review results, performance ratings, and, when necessary, switch assignments. The exit process should include attrition rate, the cost to replace, and time to fill.

Implement a DEI recruiting strategy. While autism service providers strive for authentic diversity, often, these workers are hard to find. Here in Massachusetts, my provider, The New England Center for Children, has demographics that match state averages for providers – 77% white and 78% female. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for DEI.

Create a pipeline for historically underrepresented staff. To counter the dearth of minority workers in autism services, providers may consider instituting or partnering with local colleges on special education or BCBA graduate programs. Such professional development programs create more diverse and better-trained staff.

Executing your DEI plan is about the interchange between a provider’s talent and culture and building a more diverse staff. Company culture is often how things are done. Engagement is how we think about how things are done. DEI lives through the small moments of company culture and interaction just as it does in the big policy moments. Hopefully, training, understanding, and policy together provide a DEI lens through which to see how to improve.

Measurement and ROI

Like any business initiative, the DEI effort should yield measurable outcomes and a return on investment (ROI) for the provider.

Metrics should reflect challenging (objective) and soft (subjective) outcomes and be measured annually. Examples of hard metrics include expected percentage gains in the representation of identified groups, employee satisfaction scores, employee retention, equitable bonus, salary increases, and promotions. Examples of soft metrics include employee morale and engagement, feedback in manager and employee performance reviews, public recognition, employer awards, and social media praise.

The results of the DEI program should be communicated at all levels to demonstrate the ROI and value to the provider. Communications include infographics for executive management and community affairs; web content, memos, and newsletters to staff; and company videos for prospective employees.

Establish benchmarks of performance for sustainability and long-term success. The provider should periodically review DEI initiatives, resurvey employees, and update goals.

In conclusion, all provider employees should feel that their work has meaning, that their voice is heard, that they see themselves in other people around them, and that they accept the differences. When people feel valued and appreciated, they function at full capacity and feel part of the mission.

Fatou Njie-Jallow, MHA, is the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at The New England Center for Children (NECC), a nonprofit research and education center dedicated to transforming the lives of children with autism worldwide since 1975. She may be reached at fjallow@necc.org.

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