Switch Up Your Strategies to Be More Inclusive
by Melody Martínez, CVT
The bond between humans and animals is a cross-cultural phenomenon. According to survey data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Americans of all races and ethnicities welcome dogs and cats into their homes at similar rates and are just as likely to view them as family members, not mere property.
Yet when a client walks into a veterinary clinic, they are very likely to be greeted by a largely white staff: nearly 88% of veterinarians are white (whereas only 62% of the general population is white), and all other races and ethnicities are underrepresented in the industry. There are a few more technicians and assistants who are people of color, but the overall figures are still wildly out of step compared with the overall demographics of the United States.
Many factors have contributed to this outcome, including policies that date back to the institution of slavery, veterinary school admissions practices, the unaffordability of a formal education, and the unprofitable reality of a veterinary technician career. These are deeply rooted systemic issues that won’t change overnight or without our collective determination, but that shouldn’t stop us from making the changes we can where we wield influence to do so. Could changes to our hiring practices help drive a shift toward an industry that better represents society as a whole?
The answer is yes—in fact, many veterinary practices are already making big strides.
The Ongoing Staffing Crisis
The veterinary profession has been experiencing a crisis in staffing and retention for the better part of a decade now, and it only seems to be getting worse. Educational debt has increased while wages have stagnated, mental health and wellbeing were pushed even further onto the back-burner during the pandemic, and the need for veterinary care has far exceeded the available qualified staff to keep up.
While it’s true that we are having trouble attracting new veterinarians, technicians, and assistants, we need to admit that the conditions in our industry are also pushing people to leave—whether it’s for other clinics, nonclinical settings, relief or private consulting, or the profession altogether for a new career.
It’s a job-seekers' market, so we need to work even harder to make a career in veterinary medicine appealing to as many people as possible. Attracting and retaining dedicated professionals will require that we take proactive steps to build workplace cultures that are welcoming to people of all cultures, races, and genders, being especially attentive to creating an environment that supports individuals who have largely been underrepresented.
Good Intentions Are Not Enough
In a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania, researchers found that even firms with stated intentions to hire more diverse candidates consistently failed to do so.
“Ultimately, our research allows a peek under the hood of big prestigious firms, where we found a surprising amount of race and gender bias given that these firms claim to be seeking diversity,” Judd Kessler and Corinne Low wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “To answer the call of the current moment, firms need to take a hard look at their hiring processes and face up the fact that they may not be as diversity-loving in practice as they are in intention.”
So while intentions are appreciated, workplaces need to take deliberate steps in order to ensure those intentions translate into results.
Assessing Workplace Values and Culture
Making change starts by assessing where you are. This can be the most challenging part, since it can often require admitting that your culture is much farther from your values than you had imagined. Many companies choose to enlist the help of a consultant to perform an assessment of their values, culture, and workplace practices, but there are some steps you can take before getting outside support.
Start by asking yourself some tough questions:
- Does your clinic or organization provide the psychological safety necessary for people with marginalized identities to work there? Harvard professor Amy Edmondson has researched the concept extensively and defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
- When faced with conflict that includes racialized or gendered components, do you have a process that ensures the party with a marginalized identity is heard? What unique support do you offer them?
- Can prospective job applicants see themselves already in your staff, in your clientele, in your marketing, and—most importantly—in your demonstrated values?
- How are you already in relationship with or demonstrating accountability to the communities you seek to recruit individuals from? If you are not, what might you need to do to shift this?
- Are you being publicly honest about where you are in your understanding of issues that marginalized people face and the steps you’re taking to create a more inclusive and accountable work environment?
As you answer these questions, keep in mind that the goal is for potential candidates to be confident before applying that they would be able to show up to the workplace as their whole selves. They should be able to feel a sense of belonging and that they would contribute to the existing culture in a way that wouldn’t deplete them or cause undue or disparate burden. Perfection is not the goal; what matters is being able to demonstrate your awareness, actions, and accountability toward creating an inclusive work environment.
Developing an Appealing Benefits Package
Everyone likes to feel appreciated at work, and for prospective employees, a strong benefits package can act as an early signal that your clinic values its staff. While benefits are applied equally to all full-time employees, some benefits can be more meaningful to people with marginalized identities. For example:
- Offer flexible scheduling, which while it tends to benefit parents most is also helpful for people who act as part-time caregivers for elders in their family—something that is far more common in communities of color.
- Ensure that your health insurance provider supports gender-affirming healthcare.
- Create a policy for student loan payment assistance or support for veterinary technician education and credentialing. On average, professionals of color carry more educational debt than their white counterparts, so while these policies will benefit everyone, they will make your clinic more appealing to candidates of color.
- Offer a pay differential for employees who speak languages relevant to your clientele.
- Offer a pay differential for employees who have demonstrated experience and interest in supporting your clinic’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) work.
- Encourage existing employees to create employee resource and affinity groups, and ensure that any groups that form are offered a budget for their activities. These groups can create a welcoming space for relationship building and idea generation and give a voice to staff, so long as their proposals are considered and potentially implemented.
Not every practice will be able to afford every possible benefit. The goal should be to first consider what’s financially and logistically possible, and then get creative coming up with your own ideas that support the equity and inclusion efforts of your unique practice.
Crafting an Inclusive Job Listing
We know it’s important to accurately describe the job requirements and expectations. After all, first and foremost, employees need to be able to do their job well. But when looking to attract candidates from marginalized communities, it’s equally important to communicate your values and any unique benefits your clinic offers to employees.
Your job listing is the first thing a prospective candidate will see, so what you share (or don’t share) will leave an impression that either passionately encourages or discourages a potential applicant.
Here are some of the job listing strategies that might help your practice stand out to these applicants and demonstrate your commitment to inclusion and accessibility:
- Communicate your values, goals, and reasons for investing in DEIB, and be up-front about where you are along the path to a more just and inclusive workplace. This must go beyond the boilerplate “equal opportunity employer” language or verbiage that communicates a simple tolerance for diversity. Additionally, consider including explicit language to encourage applicants currently underrepresented on your staff to apply.
- Be transparent about the salary (or salary range) for the position. This is already required in some states, but in states where it is not, it demonstrates that the employer is ahead of the curve and looking to decrease persistent gender and racial pay gaps.
- Describe your hiring process so that applicants know what to expect and when, decreasing anxiety around the process.
- Remove unnecessary qualifications, including educational degrees if they are not absolutely necessary for the role. There’s data that supports this shift: women and people of color are less likely to apply to a job if they do not meet 100% of the qualifications listed. Consider differentiating what skills, experiences, and attributes are absolutely necessary and those that are simply “nice to have.” Additionally, if you’re recruiting assistants (often the gateway role to the profession for people of color and people from lower-income households), be explicit about what you’re willing to train, what mentorship opportunities you offer, and how you will support their career ambitions.
- Expand on what you consider relevant experience. Many companies tend to overemphasize formal work experience or formal education as the only avenue for obtaining the skills or traits necessary to perform a job. While formal education or formal work experience is necessary for certain roles (e.g., veterinarians and technicians), imposter syndrome is very real. It’s important to consider how else someone might have obtained the skills or attributes necessary for a specific task or role and then explicitly encourage applicants to highlight their combination of life experience, volunteer experience, education, and work experience.
- Highlight the unique workplace benefits that speak to the audience you’re recruiting.
Rethinking Your Recruitment Strategies
Clinics often post on the same job boards and websites every time they’re looking to hire. While these platforms are often the easiest way to find candidates, if they haven’t helped you recruit a diverse candidate pool in the past, they are unlikely to ever do so.
So after you create that job listing, spend some extra time considering ways to reach the communities in your city or region who are underrepresented in your staff. Where are the communities you seek to hire from most likely to encounter your job listing? For entry-level positions that do not require degrees, it is especially important to post or share the position in nontraditional outlets to attract people new to the veterinary profession. Do you have clients from these communities you could speak to?
Equally important is to consider your existing networks. Do your colleagues in other cities or regions have potential contacts you could reach out to? Is there a nearby school offering the requisite degrees for the position you’re offering? Have you tried using paid advertising for the position on social media? These are only a few ideas—every city and every community are different.
Conducting Successful Interviews
The pressure is usually on the candidate to perform well in an interview, but when the candidate is a person of color, mistakes by the interviewer can just as easily lead to a candidate’s downfall. In order to ensure people of color and gender-diverse candidates are given a fair shot at being hired, the veterinary industry needs to completely reimagine the interview process.
First and foremost, all interviews should be conducted by a panel, not by an individual. This is increasingly recommended as best practice for all industries, as it helps prevent the potential biases of one person dictating the hiring of an entire team.
Who should sit on a hiring panel? Research indicates that the most effective way to increase the odds that qualified candidates with marginalized identities are hired is to ensure the hiring panel for the position includes the diversity you’re seeking to implement.
While this is certainly intuitive, it can sometimes be hard to implement if your organization completely lacks the representation that you’re seeking to grow. In such a situation, you have a few options:
- Hire community partners with similar DEIB values to assist in your recruitment and interview process. These could be staff at other clinics or from organizations or businesses with which you have existing relationships. A small investment can go a long way.
- Invest in implicit bias training for everyone involved in hiring. This won’t stop bias from occurring, but it helps people be aware of how their biases may come up, be more likely to notice them when they do occur, have an opportunity to remember why they care about reducing the impact of their implicit bias, and take action to work against it in the moment.
During the interview, it is always important to be up-front about your commitment to DEIB. Share with the candidates how you demonstrate your commitment in practice, but also share your vision for the future. If a candidate expresses discomfort about your goals, then it’s likely they are not a good fit for your team—regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender.
An interview is also a great opportunity to ensure you ask (1) the correct pronunciation of the applicant’s name and (2) the applicant’s pronouns.
Smooth Onboarding Is Key
Most people decide in their first days and weeks on the job if they’re likely to stay for a long period of time, so it is absolutely pivotal to ensure new employees feel welcome, wanted, and listened to. This can look different for different people—hopefully you learned about them in the interview process!—but here are some ideas:
- Does your new employee have a name that some team members might find difficult to pronounce? You likely already know this from the interview, so now it’s time to work with staff ahead of their first day to ensure everyone gets it right. Mistakes will occur and your staff should know to expect to be corrected. You can also tell the new hire that they are welcome to point this out to staff and staff will put in the work to say it correctly.
- Similarly, take steps to encourage staff to use the new employee’s accurate pronouns. In fact, why not add pronouns to everyone’s name tags?
- Does your clinic only have gendered bathrooms? At minimum, ensure that you have one all-gender bathroom available.
- Don’t wait for your new staff member to be the first to ask about your clinic’s DEIB efforts or available affinity groups, but be mindful not to make this the primary focus of conversation. You don’t want that new staff member to think they were hired just to do DEIB work. They are, after all, also a person with experience, education, and interest in veterinary medicine.
- People feel like they belong when they are seen and when they feel connected and supported. Feeling included and like you belong has a lot to do with how much influence you wield. How are you included in decisions in your workplace? Are your ideas and suggestions not merely heard but seriously considered and acted on? Employees who can answer yes to these questions tend to have a higher sense of ownership of their workplaces—a condition for belonging—and they tend to be proud of their workplaces, another condition for belonging and for retention. This can be particularly powerful for people with marginalized identities, who often report feeling powerless in the workplace.
Track Your Hiring Outcomes
We started this process with an assessment, but it’s important to continue to evaluate your progress and setbacks as you move forward. If you acknowledge that the process is not going to be perfect and commit to learning from your mistakes, you will begin to see progress.
Regular staff surveys (anonymous) and reciprocal evaluations (not anonymous) will be key to gaining a better understanding of how employees are experiencing the workplace.
Just as you regularly examine your anesthesia protocol, it’s also important to evaluate your hiring and onboarding. If you’re not reaching the outcomes you desired, work together as a team to develop new ideas to test.
There’s no foolproof playbook for building DEIB in the workplace. It will take practice, trial and error, patience, and, most critically, the will to make these changes. Know that your commitment is shared with many others across the profession who are doing similar work and that, together, we will soon see a veterinary industry that provides safe and fulfilling jobs to a wider workforce that more closely resembles the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in society. In turn, this shift will result in improvements and innovation to our medical practice and ensure that all families and communities can access the benefits of veterinary medicine.
Melody Martínez, CVT, is president of the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association and the first-generation daughter of Afro-Caribbean working-class immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Melody has worked in small animal general practice, in emergency and critical care, and as a senior animal caregiver at Farm Sanctuary in New York. Melody currently works as a racial equity and organizational change management consultant at Acorde Consulting.
Illustrations ©AAHA/Robin Taylor