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Why Minorities Distrust Employers' Promotion Policies and Practices

Why Minorities Distrust Employers' Promotion Policies and Practices

Despite the promises and HR policy initiatives, many minorities still don't trust corporate promotion practices.

That's the glum assessment made by "The State of the Organization: Diversity and Inclusion in the New Millennium," a 2005 report by Boston-based professional-skills consulting and training firm Novations/J. Howard & Associates.

Overall, only two in five American workers believe merit counts most for job advancement, a telephone survey of 1,000 individuals found. Analyzing the results across racial and ethnic minorities reveals significant variations. For example, only 22 percent of Hispanic/Latino workers surveyed believe merit counts most. Connections (30.8 percent), seniority (26.6 percent), luck (6.7 percent) and other factors (13.9 percent) account for the remaining responses. But 41.5 percent of African Americans surveyed agreed that merit counts most, similar to the results (40 percent) for whites. And 24.8 percent of African Americans think connections are most important versus 15 percent of whites.

Novations also reports that minority employees often doubt the fairness of company promotion policies. In a survey of 688 workers, more than 65 percent of white employees cited job performance as the reason for workplace advancement, compared with just 56.6 percent of Hispanics and 58.2 percent of African Americans.

Why Such Distrust?

Novations group senior consultant Joe Kaplan suggests distrust begins when the "rules of the game" for advancement are unclear. "Distrust develops when people can't understand why or how some people are getting promoted and others aren't, especially if it seems like qualified people are getting passed over for equally or less-qualified candidates in a nonminority group," Kaplan explains.

Kathryn Lenox, Novations senior consultant, adds, "Most companies don't do a good job of articulating performance expectations, giving feedback or coaching employees' career development -- for any employee. This leaves all employees filling in the explanations for themselves. Many women and people of color fill in the gap with the explanation that bias must be involved because of their race or gender."

As a result, Lenox explains, employees figure out the "real rules" through personal connections. However, "given the human tendency to establish these connections with people like ourselves, women and people of color are often at a disadvantage in the networking realm," she adds. "They can rightfully point to promotions being made not on the basis of skill but on 'who you know.'"

Perceptions of Promotion

Distrust is widespread even among groups the report doesn't mention, such as Asian Americans or gays/lesbians, Lenox says. Its origins vary with the treatment a particular group has experienced and are based on "faulty assumptions about intelligence, learning capacity and leadership capacity," she adds.

The perception of unfairness can have companywide implications, including decreased performance and increased turnover. Lenox notes that if "the word on the street" is an organization does not provide support and development opportunities, this can negatively affect recruiting efforts.

But, Lenox warns, some minority employee frustrations may be misplaced. "Minority workers don't always realize the extent to which technical competence alone won't get them promoted," she explains. "They don't work hard enough or effectively enough at creating the networks and interpersonal connections that help them figure out the leadership and relationship skills that contribute to promotions.

How to Change the System

To address these perceptions, Lenox advises companies to "clarify promotion criteria, focus on objective performance and examine the quality of developmental opportunities offered to everyone in the organization." Employers should also:

  • Establish clear standards and expectations for all employees.

  • Train managers to give clear feedback and to coach employees on career development.

  • Encourage minority workers to establish networks and connections.

  • Offer all employees "stretch" assignments.

"Define, document and overly communicate behavioral and technical-based success criteria so it is crystal clear what employees are expected to do to get promoted," says Kaplan. "That way, employees will know why people are getting or not getting jobs, thus diminishing rumors or false theories of discrimination."

Meanwhile, employees should press for clear explanations and honest, complete feedback about their performance as well as their image at work, says Lenox.

Changing the system -- and perceptions of it -- doesn't happen overnight. Kaplan says it can take a year or more for a company to begin basing talent-management decisions on performance and skills, as opposed to more subjective criteria. And it can take three to five years to "build the infrastructure and have leaders internalize the behaviors needed to make the changes sustainable," Kaplan says.

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