By Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon

Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon

Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon

The number one concern for most companies is finding, developing, and retaining top talent. Even in a recession, when there are more job seekers than there are open positions, the competition for the best and the brightest can remain fierce. Many organizations lament the fact that, while there’s no shortage of applicants for open positions, there aren’t enough who possess the right set of skills.

But what if your company already has access to a pool of talented, motivated workers—workers who just aren’t being given a chance to prove themselves?

A new Catalyst study reveals that, compared to men and non-racially/-ethnically different women, high-potential women who identify as racially or ethnically different from the majority of their coworkers:

  • Are less likely to advance to a company’s C-suite or senior executive levels;
  • Receive fewer promotions;
  • Are less likely to have high-level mentors and may, therefore, be recommended less often for important opportunities;
  • Feel more limited than their peers by a lack of access to high-visibility assignments; and
  • Are more likely to downsize their aspirations.

When people with identities that diverge from the identity of an organization’s dominant group are made to feel alienated rather than valued, their careers suffer. And the consequences may be equally dire for employers who risk missing out on workers with the right skills but few opportunities to apply them.

Employees who feel like “others” are at least as likely as their majority peers to seek out high-level mentors and sponsors. They are also as likely to attempt to increase their visibility and likelihood of being promoted by asking for crucial assignments. However, they are far less likely to receive access to either.

Why? Senior executives often feel more comfortable with employees who remind them of themselves and, as a result, are more likely to support those employees’ careers. This isn’t always evidence of conscious bias; most people unconsciously favor the familiar. But intentional or not, it’s damaging to those who aren’t “like” the people in charge.

High-potential workers who are in some way different from most of their colleagues often find themselves stuck at their company’s lower levels, wondering if they’ll ever be able to rise. If they become convinced that no matter how hard they try they never will, they may stop trying at all—and start looking for another job.

Anyone can be made to feel like an “other.” Included in our research were white people who worked at organizations where the majority of their colleagues shared a different racial identity. An Asian woman might feel like an “other” if her workgroup consists primarily of Hispanics. One can also feel like an “other” based on nonvisible characteristics, such as sexual orientation.

In an increasingly global world, companies that wish to remain competitive must be responsive to the needs of people with diverse backgrounds and life situations. Organizations in which all employees feel comfortable, respected, and valued foster dedication, diligence, and an eagerness to contribute.

What are some concrete steps you can take to ensure that all of your organization’s employees are given the same opportunities to succeed?

  • Establish mechanisms, such as diverse selection and promotion committees, to ensure that those with backgrounds different from a workgroup’s majority are evaluated fairly, based on their performance and potential.
  • Encourage senior executives to sponsor colleagues whose identities differ from their own.
  • Hold managers accountable for ensuring that all promising employees have equal access to career-accelerating jobs.
  • Equip managers to become inclusive leaders by helping them develop a set of behaviors that will elicit the best possible performance from each employee, regardless of his or her background.

Companies should see true inclusion as an exciting opportunity rather than a difficult challenge. The best way to maximize an organization’s effectiveness, and harness the power of each employee’s unique skills and talents, is to ensure that everyone feels comfortable and included at work.

Talented people with “different” perspectives should be valued rather than marginalized for what they bring to the table.

Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, PhD, serves as research director of panel management for Catalyst. Her primary focus is on developing and expanding Catalyst’s research panels globally, as a part of an effort to extend progress for women and business around the world. She also serves as a resource for participant outreach and analytics.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, and Australia—and more than 700 members—Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.