Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become a core priority for many organizations looking to create a culture of belonging for employees. A commitment to DEI isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do – according to research from Culture Amp, organizations with inclusive cultures are 8x more likely to see better overall business outcomes.
The most effective approach to DEI is one that embeds the principles of DEI into every facet of the employee experience. However, there is one significant area your organization may be overlooking when building an inclusive culture, employee learning and development (L&D).
At many companies, DEI initiatives still focus primarily on improving representation and hiring. In our 2022 Workplace DEI report, the majority (70%) of surveyed companies reported that they intentionally source underrepresented candidates. This is a step in the right direction, but barriers to career progression and additional hurdles like socioeconomic factors are part of marginalized employees’ day-to-day experience. What good is ramping up hiring for underrepresented groups only to bucket them into entry-level positions with no opportunity to advance?
In this article, we explore the value of equitable employee development, and how your organization can ensure it’s providing all employees with access to growth opportunities.
Why is employee development key to a diverse, equitable workplace?
Each of your employees is facing a different set of challenges, so offering a one-size-fits-all solution for development is often insufficient. This is especially true for employees from historically marginalized backgrounds who face multiple, often compounding barriers in their careers. Here are a few ways that people from underrepresented communities struggle to access the same opportunities as their peers:
Caregivers, who are often women, lack adequate support in the workplace. Few companies collect information on caregiver status, and fewer still provide caregiving support and benefits. Research shows that women may spend as much as 50% or more time caregiving than men – a time and energy commitment that can heavily impact a woman's career experience and trajectory.
Women of color are underrepresented at every level compared to white women and men of color, despite overall gains in workplace representation for women in 2021. This disparity only increases as employees try to climb the corporate ladder.
Lack of career progression among Asian Americans. Although almost 50% of Americans believe that Asian Americans are overrepresented or fairly represented in positions of power at companies and large corporations, Asian Americans are actually the least likely of all racial/ethnic groups to be promoted into management.
Negative biases about employees with disabilities. A study found that many employers harbor negative beliefs about workers with disabilities, including that they are “less capable,” “less qualified,” “less flexible,” and “more prone to absenteeism.” As a result of these attitudes, those living with disabilities report that they don’t see themselves in a leadership role, regardless of their qualifications.
Providing clear development opportunities helps employees across the board feel more engaged, valued, and motivated – which improves retention. However, without a specific focus on equitable development, organizations risk hurting their DEI efforts by widening the disparities between the least privileged and most privileged employees. For example, a Black woman with three young children is likely unable to take advantage of the same resources as a young, White man. Equal access to development isn’t enough – what matters is equitable access that addresses the different needs and experiences of different groups.
Breaking down barriers: 4 ways to ensure employee development empowers every employee
Barriers to development run the gamut from lack of manager support to microaggressions and unconscious bias in the workplace. Creating a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace starts with overcoming these barriers so that every employee has opportunities to grow and advance.
Below, Aubrey Blanche, Culture Amp’s Global Head of Equitable Design and Impact, shares some immediate steps your company can take to foster an environment of equitable development.
1. Implement a clear process for career advancement
Traditional methods for tracking and monitoring employee development are too often informal and lack ownership. Culture Amp research shows that only 40% of companies surveyed had clear processes in place for career growth. As employees place more value on development, this approach can leave your organization falling short and your most marginalized employees falling behind.
Whether managers’ unconscious biases affect their judgment or employees face difficulty when self-advocating, the lack of a defined process means a lack of accountability, stunting any conversations around growth. An unstructured L&D process results in less representation for historically-marginalized groups who have no method for overcoming disadvantages based on their race, gender, or other factors. With no path forward, they’re likely to plateau in their careers. The lack of structure also means that advancement decisions are made subjectively, and not in line with actual performance metrics. This leads to majority groups being granted better opportunities – whether intentional or not.
Implementing a clear process for development not only avoids larger issues of inequity within your company but also helps employees understand exactly what’s needed to get where they want to be.
2. Improve access to mentorship
More research from Culture Amp shows that only 17% of surveyed respondents reported having a formal mentorship program in place at work. Disadvantaged employees looking to grow are already navigating systemic barriers, and a lack of access to support from a trusted workplace mentor can have a compounding effect. One way to curb this is to offer intentional mentorship.
The ideal mentor is a colleague who the employee relates to or trusts. It can be helpful if mentors offer a form of representation for employees – somebody who has a similar background and understands what that employee may be feeling or experiencing. For example, an LGBTQ* mentor may be able to provide valuable advice and support to an LGBTQ* employee.
Whether through 1-on-1s, in-house training courses, or other arrangements, a mentorship program can help employees from marginalized communities express their feelings, thoughts, motivators, and demotivators – allowing managers and HR teams to strategize an appropriate way forward. Effective development starts with honest and transparent conversations, and these don’t happen when an employee finds it hard to confide in a mentor – or lacks access to one entirely.
3. Harness the power of data
Use data to inform every touchpoint of your DEI and development strategy. With the right data, you can understand where your employees are thriving, or where they’re lacking. Engagement surveys show you what the larger employee experience looks like at your organization, but to see the experience through the lens of DEI, you need to collect demographic data.
Demographic data will help your organization pinpoint how the employee experience varies for people from different groups. Considering demographic data can surface where the biggest disparities lie, whether these stem from an individual's experience, or if there’s a larger issue at hand.
The questions you ask can be development-related, process-related, or something else. To get started, here’s a list of sample demographic questions to ask employees.
Once you’ve gathered insight into how specific individuals and groups at your organization feel, consider using a purposeful development tool to support employees in overcoming barriers that may hinder growth. Develop by Culture Amp is a personalized, science-backed development tool that supports a culture of high-quality growth for your employees. Scalable and actionable, Develop helps managers and employees identify key focus areas for driving L&D and building a more equitable culture.
Identities shape experiences, and each employee’s path will differ based on their personal journey. When your organization makes DEI part of your employee development strategy, you’re able to respond to employees’ individual needs and show them the way forward.