Is Your Company Inclusive About Career Growth and Leadership Advancement?

BY Susan Kelly | May 23, 2023

Corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that gained urgency after George Floyd’s murder three years ago are losing momentum. As mass layoffs sweep across the U.S., evidence is accumulating: More workers in DEI roles (33%) have been laid off since late 2020 than those in non-DEI positions (21%).

“Some of those are the very first roles to be cut,” said Meghan Pickett, leadership trainer at management training company LifeLabs Learning. The disproportionate rate at which DEI professionals are losing positions correlates with sharp declines in diverse hiring, according to Revelio Labs, which tracked attrition levels at more than 600 U.S. companies.

Pickett, a Ph.D. candidate in industrial and organizational psychology, shared the troubling statistics during a panel on inclusive career growth and leadership advancement at From Day One’s recent conference in Chicago.

Journalist Maudlyne Ihejirika, who moderated the event, said in the wake of Floyd’s murder, corporate America made many promises to embark on or expand DEI initiatives. “We subsequently saw an explosion of DEI officers across industries,” she said.

Ihejirika began the conversation by asking, have the efforts of the past three years been successful in achieving career advancement for employees of color and propelling more of those employees into leadership positions?

“The short answer, I think, is no,” said Pickett. After Floyd’s death, a lot of companies sought out LifeLabs’ “Behaviors of Inclusion” workshop, she said. Now, “that's starting to ebb a little bit,” Pickett said. “We're really having to push to say, ‘No, this is actually a core part of what we're teaching. It's embedded into what we teach in all of our content.’ So I'm seeing what used to be that commitment wane.”

Jamie Adasi, head of inclusion, diversity, equity and allyship (IDEA) for hiring software provider Greenhouse, said she’s hearing about layoffs hitting DEI teams from colleagues at networking events. “I’m seeing lots of cuts,” she said. Still, companies that have ingrained DEI into their businesses and consider these values a competitive advantage have seen excellent progress, said Adasi. “It really does depend on where you're at and the vision and mission of the company and your leaders,” she said.

Northern Trust's senior vice president, FaLisa Jones, said the 134-year-old bank’s commitment to DEI has produced measurable results. “Our hiring practices and our recruiting practices were scrubbed. We looked for biases. We ensured that career advancement, senior leadership positions, were more diverse,” said Jones.

The bank demonstrated accountability through performance appraisals and oversight at the global, regional and business unit levels, she said. “Those are the things that are going to curb the temptation to go back to business as usual. Those systems that hold you accountable had to be concrete and in place,” said Jones. “We had strong systems already, and this was a lightning rod to make us enhance everything that we were already doing well,” she said.

The key now is to make sure progress that has been achieved and sustained in career advancement for minorities and underrepresented groups, Jones told the panel. “We can't all of a sudden grow silent, just because we're comfortable now having a seat at the table. What are you doing with your seat to ensure that sustainability is happening and we're holding executive leadership accountable to what they said they were going to do?” she asked.

Representation Matters

Jones zeroed in on why diverse representation in senior management matters. She told the story of being the only woman of color, representing her organization, on a panel at Howard University. “I got to see this beautiful room of excellence, of people of color, who were hanging on my words, and waiting in line to talk to me afterwards, just to figure out how I got where I am,” she said. With her title, said Jones, comes a responsibility. “There is a generation of people that are coming behind me,” she said. “I realized that it is up to me to do something with it.”

Diverse teams are a business asset that adds different perspectives and prevents groupthink, said Mariana González, diversity, equity and inclusion leader for Schneider Electric’s North America operations. “There's ample research that shows that diverse teams are more innovative, they're more creative, they problem-solve in different ways,” she noted.

Avoid Blurry Feedback

The From Day One panel next tackled the problem of blurry language in performance evaluations. Panel moderator Ihejirika pointed out that a common complaint by employees of color is that their annual reviews or work evaluations typically leave them unsure of the assessments.

The expert panelists spoke during From Day One's Chicago conference (photo by Tim Hiatt for From Day One)

Use of so-called “blur words” that mean different things to different people can be problematic when providing feedback, said LifeLabs’ Pickett. She gave the example of her brother, who was told he was “not engaged” at his job. When pressed, the manager who made that assessment explained to Pickett’s brother that he was observed always doodling and fiddling with things. But her brother has ADHD, and fiddling is how he stays focused, she said.

Women tend to receive blurrier feedback than their male counterparts, Pickett noted, citing a Harvard Business Review article on the subject. “I don't think it's an extreme leap to say that other minority groups are experiencing the same thing,” she said. Without effective feedback, people can’t improve and advance. “So it’s really important that we’re training folks to spot their own blurry language, but also to spot it in others,” she said.

The panelists shared additional performance development tools used by their organizations: training on inclusive behaviors to emphasize meeting employees where they are in their life stages, requiring all employees to contribute ideas that support the company’s success, and asking people to provide anonymous upward feedback. The latter involves team members giving feedback to managers to help them develop their leadership skills.

Taylor Amerman, who leads global social impact at IT services supplier CDW, said she spends a day getting to know each new person who reports to her during week one of employment. The new employees discuss how they like to work, what motivates them, and how they like to communicate. Amerman recommends that managers proactively create the time for feedback rather than wait until an issue arises.

Addressing the Naysayers

How should companies go about setting goals to make sure that leadership grows more diverse and inclusive when people challenge goal-setting for DEI programs by comparing it to quotas or affirmative action? Ihejirika asked the panel.

DEI programs, said Greenhouse’s Adasi, must measure progress from a baseline and have a clear vision for where they aim to be in one, two, three or five years, just as every other function within the business measures data and establishes those goals. “We literally look at our data monthly, quarterly, yearly. We refresh them, we report back to staff, we report back to the industry at large, our clients. We make sure that the accountability doesn't stop just within the HR function. This is every department’s work, to make sure this is moved forward. …  What gets measured, gets improved,” she said. Without a “whole ecosystem” approach to goal-setting, “you’ll see what we have been seeing recently, which are the layoffs of those teams and really starting to de-prioritize DEI efforts,” Adasi cautioned.

Social impact metrics are important, agreed Schneider Electric’s González, but she advised focusing on what she called process goals for achieving a diverse team. That means examining diversity partnerships to support a strong pipeline of job candidates that enables hiring managers to make the best decision for the organization. “We want to be careful of not driving the wrong behaviors or the wrong impression, because ultimately, we want the best people in these roles,” González said.

Building a “pause” into employee development plans and training managers to have those conversations can help guide people to the next step in their career paths, said Pickett. Panelists also emphasized the importance of quality learning and coaching solutions for leadership over quick-hit, self-paced training modules, as well as rooting out the causes of measurable DEI gaps to be strategic about how to close them. Pickett said the mantra at LifeLabs is, “If you're not being intentionally inclusive, you're likely being unintentionally exclusive.”

Susan Kelly is a Chicago-based business journalist.


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