ABA at BookExpo: Mecca Santana on Hiring for Diversity

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During the education session “Hiring for Diversity,” which was presented on June 1 at BookExpo 2017, Mecca Santana, the vice president of diversity and community relations and chief diversity officer for Westchester Medical Health Network, shared some best practices for hiring and retaining diverse talent.

Mecca SantanaDiversity is often boiled down to race and gender, said Santana, but her definition of diversity encompasses the myriad differences and similarities that a bookstore’s customers, employees, families, and friends bring to the environment. “All of those make up identity, make up who we are, and have to be taken into consideration when you’re having a conversation about what diversity is,” said Santana.

Diversity initiatives must be wedded to the philosophy of inclusion, added Santana, which involves making sure employees are active and engaged. “Having more diverse environments creates more inclusive environments,” she said. “Inclusion is what people are seeking. They don’t want to be just a cog in the machine.”

Santana recommended that booksellers tie diversity and inclusion to their “business imperatives” and treat these initiatives as sound business practices. The business imperatives for independent bookstores, for example, would be ensuring the store is the bookstore of choice, the employer of choice, and the community partner of choice, said Santana. If that is the case, should the person or people who are passionate about diversity leave, the organization can still uphold its goal of diversity. “This is what successful organizations have adopted over the last few years,” said Santana.

Becoming the bookstore of choice for customers who have a number of purchasing options requires booksellers to care about diversity and inclusion, said Santana. Booksellers can reach more diverse audiences by creating more diverse sections in their bookstores, showcasing an array of diverse titles in the windows, presenting signage in multiple languages, and posting LGBT-friendly emblems.

“Customers make their minds up about your establishment within the first couple of seconds of walking in the door,” said Santana. They notice if they see themselves and their values reflected in the art, the signage, and the employees, and they think about whether that establishment is a place they want to continue to visit and where they want to spend money, she said.

The U.S. will soon be a majority minority country, Santana explained, so to become the employer of choice, booksellers must connect with a talent pool that is diverse. “Your customers are going to be diverse, your community is going to be diverse, so your employees are going to have to be diverse,” she said.

While recruitment is the first step, retention is the next. “Talented people nowadays have options,” said Santana, so booksellers need to think about how to enhance what they have to offer to employees, such as opportunities for growth and engagement.

Presenting as a community partner of choice means embracing the local first mantra and ensuring people see what the bookstore brings to the community so that they elect to shop and work there, said Santana. People will be interested in shopping at a local bookstore if they see that business partnering with religious institutions, schools, community-based organizations, and other small businesses.

There are a variety of obstacles that impede efforts to hire diversely, but these can present opportunities, according to Santana. “While we can address the obstacles to implementation that exist, I think it’s just as important to look at these as opportunities for innovation,” she said.

One of the obstacles to implementing diverse hiring practices is unconscious bias, said Santana. “It’s hardwired,” she explained, and we all have it. “It’s not about getting rid of it; it’s about recognizing what it is and when it comes into play.”

To combat unconscious bias, Santana recommended booksellers educate themselves and their staff by taking advantage of free training offered by local groups or by taking Harvard University’s online implicit association tests. Booksellers should also look at their stores to see if unconscious bias has manifested itself in business operations, policies, procedures, or in the hiring process.

“When you’re making decisions about hiring and promotional opportunities and the kind of visual displays to put up in your establishment, things like unconscious bias have a great impact. You have to have some level of awareness about that,” said Santana.

Another obstacle that booksellers face is online competition, which requires stores to combat the sentiment that people don’t need to go to bricks-and-mortar businesses. In response, Santana recommended that booksellers showcase the store’s culture and be authentic.

“You can create a culture of inclusion that no online competitor has. You can create an experiential nature for those who are coming to your establishment that is unlike anything else,” she said. “Make sure you’ve staffed your establishment with people who can cater to a diverse customer population.”

Santana also urged booksellers to promote what’s important to their communities in order to present themselves as a hub for conversation. “Hosting something like a diversity dialogue or a community conversation at your establishment will garner great results in addition to the fact that you’ve simply gotten people into your store,” she said.

Other obstacles to hiring diversely that can be turned into positives include a store’s location, for which Santana recommended booksellers use social media to both reach new audiences and to drive foot traffic to the store; a store’s small size, which booksellers should promote as a unique attribute that makes people want to shop and work there; and a lack of resources, which makes partnerships that much more important because of the far-reaching networks of the partnering organizations.

“Diversity and inclusion best practices have to be woven into everything you do,” said Santana, from where you recruit to your store’s physical space, and from the books you order to your marketing strategy. “Diversity and inclusion best practices will help drive and support all that, which, again, ultimately strengthens your organization.”

Following up on her appearance at BookExpo, Santana provided links to three diversity recruitment websites: hbcuconnect.com, diversity.com, and hiring.monster.com/recruitment/Diversity-Inclusion.aspx.