The “Hiring for Diversity and Inclusion” education session at Winter Institute 13 in Memphis gave booksellers a series of guidelines to adhere to when it comes to hiring a diverse sales team.
Marc Villa, assistant manager of the children’s and teens department at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., and Mecca E. Santana, senior vice president of diversity, inclusion, and community engagement for Westchester Medical Center Health Network in White Plains, New York, led the discussion on how bookstores can be more diverse as well as more inclusive.
Creating a diverse workforce often requires a new and different approach to hiring, including looking outside the typical sources for candidates and fostering relationships both in the store and the larger community. This session on hiring for diversity is a result of the work of booksellers on the American Booksellers Association’s Diversity Task Force, which was created following the 2017 Winter Institute Town Hall in Minneapolis.
Task Force member Hannah Oliver Depp, the communications director for WORD bookstores in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, New York, introduced the session, noting that its inspiration derived from the suggestions and e-mails booksellers have been sharing with the task force since its inception.
“The ends goal of the ABA that the Diversity Task Force is here to help promote is that diversity improves your store,” she said, both by increasing sales and establishing your store as a leader in the community.
At the session on Thursday, January 25, Santana, who previously served as the chief diversity officer for the State of New York, said that diversity and inclusion best practices will, in fact, help you strengthen your organization and further your business goals.
“We don’t do diversity for diversity’s sake. We don’t talk about diversity from a moral imperative standpoint,” she said. “An altruistic argument, when it comes to diversity in business, will fail.”
While the evolution of diversity in the private sector began with the introduction of laws regarding diversity in the workplace, it has since evolved to the understanding that diversity practices are wed to the bottom line of the organization. People in business, including booksellers, she said, need to think about the goal of diversity in terms of how it will help retain and recruit top talent, drive a company’s strategic business goals, and increase market share, rather than as merely being “the right thing to do.”
According to Santana, diversity is equal to “the unique differences and similarities that customers, their families, the work force, and members of the community bring into your environment.” This should be more than a conversation about race and gender, she added, but also diversity within the range of physical ability, intellectual diversity, geographical diversity, and diversity of experience and interest.
“To limit the conversation to women and minorities allows anyone who doesn’t fall into that category to divorce themselves from the conversation,” said Santana. “It’s this idea of, where do we think the value resides? That’s a conversation about diversity because value and talent reside in all of those spaces.”
Villa agreed that diversity means many different things, something that is apparent in every way at Politics and Prose; the store, he said, employs a very broad definition of the concept, extending beyond best practices in hiring.
“For example, since the inception of the [children’s and teens] department in the late 1990s, it was always our intention to sell and promote and do everything we can to get diverse books out there,” said Villa. “It shows in our face outs, it shows in our collection, and it shows in the programs that we do.”
Villa told booksellers that the children’s and teens department at P&P cultivates a diverse staff, which is currently comprised of 12 people. At the moment, the department staff, though mostly female, ranges in age from 20s to late 60s, while its ethnic composition includes African American, Native American, and Asian representation. But, he said, “it is also really important for us to look for people who have had different life experiences, different skill sets, and other things to bring to the table.”
One of the most important attributes they seek in those hired, he said, is a passion for children’s literature.
“Since the number of diverse children’s books is increasing, we have to be deliberate about what we buy and who is going to sell it, so we want our staff to be knowledgeable,” he said. “That is why we like to hire folks who come from different backgrounds and have a broad range of interests in kids’ literature. We also want people who can juggle multiple roles because that helps us carry out our programs, including community outreach, author events, and book groups, more effectively.”
According to Santana, when it comes to diversity, it’s also important for bookstore owners to understand the multiple dimensions of the concept, whether your goal is triggering engagement with your workforce or connecting with your customer base.
“We talk about diversity reflecting the communities we serve because we want to be responsive to the communities we serve,” said Santana. This also means creating inclusive environments, she said, or those that really welcome individuals and value their contributions and talents, understanding their differences while leveraging them to the benefit of the organization. In other words, as diversity and inclusion consultant Vernã Myers wrote in Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go From Well-Meaning to Well-Doing (American Bar Association), “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
“You can hire the most diverse staff possible, but you can’t guarantee more productivity, better workforce engagement, or more collegial relationships if you haven’t created an inclusive environment for people,” Santana said. “You need to think about how you make sure you are actually valuing those people that you have. How are you investing in them? How are you valuing what they bring to the table so that they know they’re not just a checked box for you?”
Booksellers, said Santana, can help activate their workforce by making employees feel as if they are connected to a mission bigger than themselves, one of cultivating intellectual curiosity, connection, and potential within the community.
But there are also obstacles to increasing the diversity of your business, including employers’ unconscious bias in hiring or booksellers’ unconscious bias when it comes to customer service; both can be combatted by increasing awareness and then making moves to remediate those biases. Other barriers to a diverse customer base and workforce can include a lack of access to the store, which can be remedied by amplifying your message on social media.
“Our department has its own Twitter account and that has been a wonderful tool for promoting our author events and getting the community to know what we are doing,” said Villa. “We often have our staff pull out a camera during talks so they can take a picture and tweet about it. Twitter has been a really good tool for us. It’s important to get acclimated to doing that; adaptation is the key to survival for an organization.”
Other obstacles to implementation of diverse hiring practices include a lack of resources for recruiting a variety of candidates, which Santana said can be addressed by creating more partnerships with diverse professional organizations, schools, churches, and community-based organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs.