No matter how diverse the pipeline of job candidates is, if we have not properly prepared our organizational landscape, the odds are stacked against the talented professionals we work so hard to find, recruit, and welcome aboard. Many organizations have instituted measures to monitor and increase their diversity hires; however, less attention is paid to what happens after the hire. Only when we effectively create a more equitable landscape and support women and people of color in navigating it can we benefit from the full engagement and contributions of all of our people and avoid losing them to turnover or disengagement.
Occupational minorities — those individuals who are relative rarities in their profession due to their gender or sexual identity, ethnicity, age, or other factors — have accomplished what countless more have only dreamed of: They have broken through the glass ceiling, navigated the often inhospitable corporate jungle, and often successfully negotiated the glass cliff. Although the executives who represent diverse populations in your organization have successfully overcome these challenges, an important task remains: building a path for others to follow. This is hard, painstaking work that requires many different tools and competencies, yet it is necessary if others are to safely navigate the landscape.
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Steps to Sustaining Diversity
Although various resources offer suggestions for how professionals from underrepresented populations can navigate and overcome organizational challenges, it is equally essential that organizations identify where persistent systemic bias and racism lurk and take concrete action to address them. Organizations can take the following five steps to begin the process of creating more inclusive environments where all employees have equal opportunities to thrive and advance in their careers.
Step 1: Establish leadership commitment to diversity with sponsorship.
Leadership throughout the organization must demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. When leaders model these behaviors, employees throughout the organization naturally follow their example. However, this commitment cannot be limited to one-off efforts or statements on corporate values.
Leaders must consciously exhibit their commitment to hiring people from underrepresented populations by helping to develop and equip these candidates for advancement. Specifically, every leader, regardless of organizational level, should identify at least one such candidate to intentionally sponsor. After getting to know the candidate’s background, career goals, and support needs, the leader should (1) counsel them in navigating the organization, (2) support them in developing the competencies needed to advance in their career, and, critically, (3) help them secure progressive leadership positions.
Leaders must consciously exhibit their commitment to hiring people from underrepresented populations by helping to develop and equip these candidates for advancement.
Although formal mentoring, sponsorship, and buddy programs can be helpful in this effort, relationships that develop informally often are equally, if not more, rewarding and beneficial and tend to continue long after one or both individuals have advanced in or moved out of the organization.
Step 2: Remove glass ceilings by addressing systemic factors.
The metaphor of the glass ceiling depicts the systems of discrimination that prevent certain groups of people (typically women and people of color) from accessing high-level opportunities for career growth and advancement. Clues that glass ceilings exist within your organization include a lack of diversity within the upper-management and executive ranks compared with your overall workforce; pay disparities between individuals with similar roles and qualifications; limited mentorship, sponsorship, development, or advancement for certain groups of people; explicit or implicit biases regarding which groups are a better fit for leadership roles than others; and attrition levels within underrepresented groups that exceed those of other groups.
To identify and eradicate glass ceilings in your organization, closely scrutinize every aspect of the employee experience. For example, address biased hiring and promotion practices using blind recruitment techniques; review salary ranges and promotion criteria to ensure that equal pay is awarded for equal work; and make clear career paths and development opportunities available to all employees. Diversity goals, inclusion initiatives, and employee education on recognizing and avoiding unconscious biases also can support a diversity-conducive climate. Supporting flexible work arrangements and work-life balance can encourage the full participation of employees who might otherwise be overlooked due to their needs to balance personal and professional responsibilities.
Step 3: Reduce glass cliffs through due diligence.
The term glass cliff describes a phenomenon in which women and other minorities are preferentially selected for leadership positions in times of crisis, placing them at increased risk for failure.1 This phenomenon occurs across industries and geographies, and for women and ethnic minorities alike.2 The problem with giving people from underrepresented populations leadership opportunities only in times of crisis is that those who lead during turbulent times tend to be seen as part of the problem, which perpetuates stereotypes and reduces future opportunities for such candidates.3
To avoid this outcome, care must be taken to recognize and fully examine the situation before assigning a leader to address it. While the temptation to dive in and do something to “stop the bleeding” is overwhelming, taking the appropriate time to first fully understand the problem is a small price to pay for a much-improved chance of success. The diagnosis process should include identifying project parameters (such as performance targets, deadlines, and budget), project stakeholders, past actions taken, the current situation, and desired outcomes — from the perspectives of all stakeholders. My article on the glass cliff phenomenon provides more details on the process of due diligence and the questions that can be used to diagnose these situations. Only after diagnosing the problem will it be possible to select the most appropriate candidate to lead the effort.
Step 4: Broaden the pathway by changing the conversation.
Corporate environments can be fraught with challenges for women and people of color. Many challenges are systemic, such as organizational cultures that disadvantage certain groups versus others, or workloads and behavioral expectations that require long hours in the office and around-the-clock responsiveness. These systemic challenges can make the corporate landscape seem foreign and antagonistic. In turn, occupational minorities might compensate by nursing cognitive biases that result in too much or too little confidence; limiting their social networks to similar peers rather than nurturing vital connections to sponsors, mentors, and career guides; and failing to strike an appropriate work-life balance.
Although leaders must deliberately sponsor occupational minorities (Step 1), mentors, sponsors, and allies throughout the organization also play important roles in guiding candidates toward success because they, too, have already successfully navigated the organization. Supporting emerging leaders means changing the typical mentoring conversation. Typical conversations involve identifying a mentee’s short- and long-term goals and seeking the mentor’s situational advice, guidance on skill development, and feedback on performance. Mentoring that supports diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging should be adapted to include a clear framework for professional development, an explanation of how various opportunities and positions contribute to the candidate’s career goals, and a discussion of how to navigate the organizational culture — all in light of the glass ceilings, glass cliffs, and systemic challenges they face as occupational minorities.
Cognitive biases also should be part of the conversation so that candidates can avoid the traps of both being overconfident and overcompensating for perceived shortcomings. Evaluation and adjustment of cognitive biases might be best accomplished by gathering 360-degree feedback regarding the mentee’s performance on key tasks and engaging the mentee to describe their feelings, thoughts, and general experiences related to performing those tasks. Overconfidence might be occurring when the mentee’s task performance is at or below average while their own experience of that task reflects strong enthusiasm, satisfaction, and a sense of achievement. In contrast, overcompensation might be occurring when the mentee’s task performance is evaluated as or above average yet their described experiences suggest that they are spending too much time on tasks or that they harbor concerns about their performance.
Step 5: Measure and track progress.
A popular business adage is that we must inspect what we expect. This truism applies equally to any diversity effort. The process begins with defining what success looks like according to key diversity metrics such as hiring, retention, and advancement for various employee populations. It might be tempting to stop there; however, defining the goal is only the beginning. Additionally, it is necessary to measure the organization’s current performance on these KPIs and then examine why that is the current state. Understanding the organization’s current performance requires the following assessments:
1. Gauge buy-in. To what extent do organizational leaders and members understand and agree that the KPIs defined are the right indicators and performance targets?
2. Gauge feasibility. What organizational structures, processes, and other features facilitate the achievement of the KPI? What features threaten or obstruct achievement?
3. Gauge support needs. Leaders are taught to adapt to the needs of individual subordinates based on each person’s skill level. In the same way, leaders throughout the organization need to adjust the amount of oversight, encouragement, and direction they provide as departments and employees across skill levels work to achieve diversity goals. For example, a recruiting department that is relatively inexperienced at hiring professionals from underrepresented groups will need strong, step-by-step guidance and frequent feedback until their competency grows, while a manager who is highly skilled at developing and including such professionals generally should be allowed the autonomy to exercise their talents to their fullest.
A popular business adage is that we must inspect what we expect. This truism applies equally to any diversity effort.
As initiatives are implemented, continue to regularly assess these metrics to gauge your progress and fine-tune your efforts. As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets done.” Achievement of your diversity goals will happen only if they are deliberately defined and regularly assessed.
I often have been one of few Black leaders in the organizations where I’ve worked. At one point in my career, I was a town hall presenter at two meetings separated by level — one attended by rank-and-file employees, and the other attended by management. Although the Black customer service representatives were pleasantly surprised to see someone who looked like them in an executive role, I was shocked and dismayed to realize that nearly our entire customer service representative force was Black while all of our supervisors and managers were White. This was puzzling because the leadership team seemed to care about diversity from a recruiting standpoint, but it was glaringly obvious that systemic barriers were obstructing the retention and advancement of professionals from underrepresented groups.
Often, it is only when executives, board members, or the HR team notices a lack of diversity in their organization’s upper levels that problems in the talent management system are noticed — but typically poorly understood and only rarely solved. Such disparities in advancement might be at least partially explained by inhospitable organizational settings and the need to broaden the pathway for these professionals from underrepresented populations to succeed.
Organizational leaders, coaches, mentors, sponsors, and other potential career enablers all have a part to play in eliminating sources of inequity and equipping occupational minorities to survive and thrive in corporate environments. As more and more diverse groups of professionals travel the pathway to career success, the pathway will become smoother and broader, resulting in an ongoing and cumulative organizational transformation.
1. M.K. Ryan and S.A. Haslam, “The Glass Cliff: Evidence That Women Are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” British Journal of Management 16, no. 2 (June 2005): 81-90.
2. T. Morgenroth, T.A. Kirby, M.K. Ryan, et al., “The Who, When, and Why of the Glass Cliff Phenomenon: A Meta-Analysis of Appointments to Precarious Leadership Positions,” Psychological Bulletin 146, no. 9 (September 2020): 797-829.
3. A.D. Galinsky, E.V. Hall, and A.J.C. Cuddy, “Gendered Races: Implications for Interracial Marriage, Leadership Selection, and Athletic Participation,” Psychological Science 24, no. 4 (April 2013): 498-506.