Success at work depends on a variety of factors. However, for people of color (POC), one of those factors may be an organization’s level of diversity, according to a study by Clutch.
The study found that more than half (54%) of employees don’t think their company has done a good job of improving diversity in 2020. However, 53% believe their employers are listening to workers’ concerns and committed to creating a diverse workplace.
Another interesting finding: 60% of POC believe their company’s diversity affects their ability to succeed. This compares to 32% of white workers.
So what’s the connection between diversity and success for POC?
The Burden of Education and Awareness
While most employees are concerned about doing a good job, many POC working in environments that lack diversity carry an additional weight. “The burden of diversity education has largely fallen on the diverse workforce, meaning that employees are carrying the responsibility of both excelling in their responsibilities, as well as educating their colleagues on issues of race and equality,” explains Dr. Ti’eshia Moore, a CliftonStrengths coach and researcher who focuses on organizational learning and culture. And Moore believes that this leads to exhaustion with effects that we don’t yet fully understand.
“People of color share an additional burden that is evident, whether they are overtly educating others or not, which is the burden of awareness.” When they walk into a room, she says POC often make a mental note of whether there are others who look like them or not. “POC can simultaneously note who is present and who is not, and this can lead to possible feelings of void and isolation.”
When POC notice the absence of diversity in the workplace, this often leads to other questions that may remain unanswered. According to Moore, they’re left to their own assumptions as to why there aren’t adequate levels of diversity. “For example, is the company committed to diversity in statement and action? Does the organizational culture support a diverse workforce? Is there a real or perceived glass ceiling?”
And Moore says the answers to these questions and perceptions about these conditions are critical to success. “Ultimately, the ability to grow and advance depends on conditions that have little to do with their job duties,” she explains.
Tyler Butler, founder and CEO of 11Eleven Consulting, agrees that diversity in the workplace is critical for the advancement of POC. “Having a racially and ethnically diverse workforce can impact factors and practices within companies such as prejudice, stereotypes, and opportunity,” she says. “Whether this is conscious or unconscious, a lack of diversity can create an imbalanced mindset and outlook and can lead to feelings of isolation and, in some cases, can leave disparate employee populations feeling threatened.”
Representation in the Upper Ranks
Diversity also affects POC in another way. “The number one diversity initiative POC employees want is the promotion of people of color into leadership roles,” says Nerissa Zhang, cofounder and CEO of The Bright App. “There are many diversity initiatives that can be helpful to people of color in the workplace, but without POC leadership, any other initiatives will fall short and fail to solve the root causes of workplace bias and discrimination.”
Her view is shared by Fatimah Pierce, Ph.D., founder and principal at Hickman Rose Strategies, who says that representation matters, especially in upper management. “When people of color are in leadership positions with decision-making authority and a seat/voice at the table, they can offer insight and advice on policies, promotions, and other factors that affect their POC employees,” Pierce tells us. “This could have a huge impact on employees’ success in the following ways: 1) There is an increased awareness of issues that impede advancement, and there may be attempts to mitigate those issues, and 2) There are opportunities for mentoring and role modeling.
Mentorship Opportunities and Allies
Speaking of mentoring opportunities, Zhang explains that a company with diverse leadership that presents more mentorship opportunities is important because it leads to greater career development and opportunities for advancement. “Diverse leaders are better able to understand the barriers and challenges that people of color face at work and are therefore better able to implement solutions to remove those barriers,” she says.
For companies that want to empower employees to explore advancement opportunities, Butler believes there should be an abundance of mentors, peers, sponsors, and groups that people of color can turn to as allies and support systems. “Gallup found that 45% of American workers have themselves experienced discrimination and/or harassment, and these feelings can naturally lead to a lack of motivation, satisfaction and consequently a lack of advancement,” she says. “Without a diverse support system in place, companies run the risk of alienating people of color and thus limiting their professional opportunities.”
The Path Forward
Having the right people in place is one half of the picture. The other half must include the right strategies and policies. “More than anything, POC employees want initiatives that allow them to have a fair shot—equity is a major factor in diversity and inclusion work,” Pierce says. For POC, she says it’s often not enough to be a good employee—or even a great employee—because these workers are already behind the curve. “Employers need to emphasize initiatives specifically for their POC, which would include considering the complexities of intersectional populations.”
Pierce also recommends creating a clear path for upward mobility (combined with mentoring and other resources). “And most importantly, hiring or promoting those POC when there’s the right mix of opportunity and talent,” she says.
Butler agrees that companies can recruit more people of color. “Having awareness of where your company stands with its DE&I efforts is necessary to build upon and make improvements.” She also recommends auditing your job ads to make sure they apply to a variety of candidates. “In addition, lean on your current staff: encouraging your diverse employee population to make referrals can be a great way to land top-notch talent that is diverse and qualified.”