Promoting DEI Through Equitable Advancement

Natasha Nicholson


October 3, 2022

equitable advancement in diversity equity and inclusion strategies

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), companies across a broad spectrum of industries are having a clarifying moment. They are discovering that it is one thing to build diversity in their organization, but it is another altogether to develop the inclusion and equity needed to truly unlock the power of diversity. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) report Elevating Equity: The Real Story of Diversity and Inclusion, “Roughly 80% of companies are just going through the motions and not holding themselves accountable.” Another study from the HR Research Institute found that many DEI initiatives are not achieving significant results, with just 9% of survey respondents rating their company’s DEI programs as highly effective.

“Businesses are prioritizing diversity without putting equitable and inclusive structures in place to support a diverse work culture,” according to Candice Bristow, director of equity, inclusion and diversity at cybersecurity technology firm Expel. “The reality is, before you can create a truly diverse workforce, you must commit to equitable and inclusive initiatives that support all employees. No matter how diverse your team is, your DEI efforts will fail if you do not provide equitable programs and inclusive environments.”

Organizations must take concrete steps to establish the culture, processes and systems that enable the kind of authentic inclusivity and equity that stakeholders expect. When striving to create a culture of inclusivity, employee advancement is one critical piece of the puzzle that can truly demonstrate a company’s commitment to DEI.

Here are five ways that risk professionals, particularly those in human resources functions, can help their company make real and tangible progress toward greater inclusivity and equity:

1. Cultivate a culture of learning for shared understanding.

Before we can look at specific management practices in employee advancement, we need to step back and consider culture and its impact on how people behave. To affect culture, employees need to have a shared understanding about what defines inclusivity and equity, what it means in practice, and what changes in behavior they may need to make to get there.

The best way to accomplish this is through the cultivation of a learning culture. In researching what inclusive companies have in common, Professors J. Yo-Jud Cheng and Boris Groysberg reported in the Harvard Business Review, “Among organizations rated as very or extremely diverse and inclusive, 14% had an organizational culture in which learning was the most salient culture style. In comparison, among organizations rated as not at all or not very diverse and inclusive, only 8% ranked learning as the most salient style.”

While there is no one-size-fits-all model for cultivating an inclusive learning culture, there are some basic ideas and concepts for accomplishing this. First, create awareness of the value that DEI brings to everyone in the organization. Second, ensure that education and training offer learning that is nuanced, relatable and inclusive of complex situations that will help employees and managers understand how to navigate difficult circumstances. Finally, leverage education with complementary activities that help to build a culture of inclusivity, such as mentoring, sponsorships and employee support groups. A mixture of these efforts can culminate in a learning culture. This will set the stage to implement systems and processes that will affect the organization’s ability to develop and maintain more equitable employee advancement.

2. Create inclusive ways to identify qualified candidates.

It is not unusual for companies to have sets of close-knit groups—that is a natural part of camaraderie that humans need and crave. But one downside of this is that managers and other decision-makers may inadvertently look to advance employees strictly within their own sphere. In addition, people tend to trust and gravitate toward others who are like themselves. The result can be the perpetuation of a closed culture that shuts off opportunities for other employees.

This can lead companies to a place of risk where underrepresented employees are overlooked, and a homogenous culture forms a barrier against greater inclusivity and equity. One step to breaking this cycle is expanding the ways in which qualified candidates can be identified. Initial methods include enabling all employees to have awareness about the advancement opportunities available within the company and ensuring that managers think broadly and openly about who could be a fit for a new position. That means providing managers with guidance on how to make the most inclusive choices and carving out new systems and processes that help expand their view of possible candidates.

A related step is creating an inclusion council. Drawing insights from author and DEI expert Jennifer Brown, SHRM suggested forming a dedicated council of eight to 12 influential leaders who are one or two levels below the CEO. “Ideally, councils should be involved in goal-setting around hiring, retaining and advancing a diverse workforce and in addressing any employee engagement problems among underrepresented employee groups,” SHRM advised.

3. Nurture employees to become qualified candidates.

Unsurprisingly, managers are often in the best position to nurture their employees’ advancement. In a recent report on bridging advancement gaps, McKinsey found, “Among frontline employees, 73% cited a manager who supports their career progression as key to career advancement.” The firm also reported, “Frontline employees who advance are more likely to have frequent manager-led career advancement discussions (23% higher than their peers) and receive positive feedback from their managers (15% higher than peers).”

Career mentorship can also help cultivate qualified candidates. As another report from McKinsey asserted, “In the first 30 days, connecting new employees with an internal mentor who can provide formal or informal coaching can be powerful, especially in cases where frontline employee mobility is low or managers are not equipped to support their professional development. These mentoring ‘staff ambassador’ roles can also serve as a unique skill-building opportunity for incumbent employees.”

According to Jackie Ferguson, DEI expert and a member of the Forbes Councils, mentorship and sponsorship can foster increased connectivity in the workplace and help people fulfill their potential. To clarify the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, she noted, “Mentors are role models at various experience levels who facilitate professional growth by providing direct one-on-one guidance via coaching, feedback, connections and advice. Mentorship might help clarify an employee’s goals and outline a path forward. Sponsors, in contrast, are specific senior-level leaders who agree to use their influence to build opportunities and drive careers forward, such as by advocating for promotion, sharing job opportunities, making introductions and nominating their protégés for programs.”

4. Launch an inclusive process to interview and evaluate candidates.

Making advancement more inclusive may also require helping managers to break out of old habits and protocols that may fuel arbitrary and subjective decision-making. Some of these bad habits can include always asking the same employees for candidate referrals or having a siloed approach where managers do not consult with others when making their advancement decisions.

There are a few ways around this. Start by developing criteria for advancement, as this can increase inconsistency when evaluating candidates. Ensure that the decision-making process is broad enough to include different perspectives and voices, for example, using a cross-sectional and diverse panel of evaluators. Track and document interviewer feedback received on each candidate. Work with managers to help them screen out their own biases from the process as they evaluate the merits of each candidate. Remind managers that biases are much like blind spots—we all have them, and it takes vigilant self-awareness to help excise them from our thinking. Finally, it is helpful to revisit the original advancement criteria during the last steps of the process, as it reorients decision-making back to an established intent.

5. Practice inclusivity with candidates who were not selected.

In an internal hiring process, there will be candidates who are not selected. This group represents both an opportunity and a risk. As described in a Harvard Business Review article, a team of researchers at Cornell and Penn State examined the situation around this group and found that, in terms of organizational risks, “rejected internal candidates are nearly two times as likely to leave their organizations compared to those who were either hired for an internal job or had not applied for a new job at all.” They added, “The lost productivity, combined with the costs of finding replacements for these employees, is often substantial.”

A key insight from the research is that “employees do not apply for jobs solely because they want a new job right now; they also apply to learn what opportunities might be available to them in the future.” For that reason, it is critical to open a path for them to succeed. As the researchers noted, “Companies that strategically manage their internal talent market are better positioned to keep rejected employees onboard."

Natasha Nicholson is director of content marketing at Kantola Training Solutions, an e-learning company focused on diversity, equity and inclusion and harassment prevention training.