Are You Unsettled By a Lack of Diversity at Work? Here’s What to Do

Actionable steps for change

This month, our motivation series shines a spotlight on those fighting for change at work. To kick off the series, we wanted to look at the reality of diversity and inclusion in corporate America. Wake-Up Call chatted with Pooja Jain-Link of the Center for Talent Innovation, who told us of the importance of companies creating safe and inclusive workplaces, and outlined some of the obstacles that women and people of color face at work.

Wake-Up Call: Your team has spent 15 years investigating gender and racial dynamics in the workplace, and published a number of reports with the results. Can you describe some of the imbalance that you’ve seen in corporate America?

Pooja Jain-Link: One of the things that makes CTI so unique is that we look at diversity and inclusion for a broad array of groups. We don’t look at just gender or just race — but we also look at LGBTQ individuals, veterans, and people with disabilities. I don’t think you can necessarily say that one group is doing better than the others. But I will say from our most recent research on black professionals in corporate America: One of the things we’ve seen is that there’s a perception that white women have benefited the most from diversity and inclusion work, often at the expense of their professionals of color.

When people state that there’s a lack of diversity and inclusion in their workplace, and that there’s a lack of representation, how have they reported feeling?

It can be hugely disengaging if you don’t see, especially leaders at the top of your organization, people that look like you. It can be a struggle to see a path forward. What is your career path going to look like if no one who looks like you has ever made it to the top? We found in some recent research that a lot of black professionals are actually opting out of corporate America and looking at smaller organizations or entrepreneurial ventures, in part because they just don’t see leaders like themselves. They have these high ambitions and they don’t see a way to meet them at their current organization. So not having that representation, especially at the top, can lead to a huge flight risk and large disengagement.

What steps can companies take to diversify their workforce?

It’s really important to drive forward both diversity and inclusion. In the end, one of the goals is obviously to diversify the workforce and to increase representation. Having goals around hiring and promotion are important. Having leaders held accountable for those goals can be hugely incentivizing. That can drive the diversity part of it.

Inclusion is what happens once you get those employees in the door. A lot of organizations I’ve worked with in the past described a revolving door of talent, where they’re so overly focused on hiring that they’ll get bodies in the door, but they’re losing them just as quickly. So it’s not really making a difference. You have to build that inclusive culture: Making sure people are aware of their biases and aware of how to not act on them is the most critical piece. Having inclusive leadership should be a norm — a place where managers and leaders are creating speak up culture where people are heard, where they are welcome, where they feel like their differences are valued and they feel like they can contribute and grow as employees.

Getting back to what you said about bias: What are some steps that we can take to help people recognize, and attempt to eliminate, their own biases?

A common quote we hear is, “If you have a brain, you have bias.” Everyone has it. Getting comfortable with knowing that is step one. A lot of organizations — especially ones we work with — have done unconscious bias training, where people become aware of their biases and even take some initial steps on how to act or react differently in the moment when faced with those biases.

But that’s only one step of the puzzle, because you can only hold individuals accountable to be aware of and not act on their biases. To stop to some to a limited extent, you really need to look at the systems in place. What are the organizational norms? What are the processes around talent management that might have bias baked into them? How are employees being judged and assessed? And how can that system be something where certain traits and values are prioritized, that might be biased on the face of them without people realizing it?

Even more than training employees, you need to look at your internal policies and where bias shows up in them, and then work to counteract that. You can also have systemic checks and balances.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, you wrote about the importance of sponsorship programs. Can you tell us how these sponsorship programs work, and why having a sponsor can be so beneficial?

We would all love for companies to be meritocracies where everyone is advancing just based on the quality of their work. But that’s not the case. Relationships matter, networks matter, who you know matters. That’s the way the world is. This idea of sponsorship isn’t new; it’s been around forever. Think back to the Greeks and the Romans, the founding fathers even — George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, that could be considered a sponsor-protégé relationship. That’s the way that power has traditionally been transferred within companies: A leader will pick a successor and groom them to eventually take their role.

But the thing that has been traditionally happening is that leaders are often straight white men, who pick others that look like them or remind them of themselves, to succeed them. Making sponsorship programs something that people are being intentional about, brings this relationship out of the back waters where these networks are being built — and into the limelight. It’s saying, “This is going to happen, but we want to make sure that it’s happening fairly and equally, because you might not look like the current leaders at our organization. But you don’t have any less of a chance to build a relationship with them or be considered for a leadership role.”

By connecting their leaders with high-potential junior talent that might be different than the people they’re interacting with, even in their day-to-day, can help those individuals build relationships that will eventually get them to the top box. Especially for women and people of color — pairing them with sponsors or leaders who are advocating for them and pushing for their promotion for their career growth, can really make a huge difference.

What advice do you have for workers who are perhaps unsettled by a lack of diversity or inclusion in their own workplace?

If you’re unsettled by it, you can become an advocate for it. Try and push your organization, your leaders, to prioritize it if they aren’t already. If they are, get involved with those efforts. Diversity and inclusion isn’t just something for women or for people of color to be involved in. Everyone should be a part of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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