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The fallacy of thinking that if we fairly evaluate each individual, we will ultimately end up with a fair evaluation of the whole team.

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Promotion inequity – promotion processes that result in underrepresented groups (URGs) being left behind – comes up often in my line of work. This situation never happens on purpose. Many of my clients have put a lot of thought into their promotion processes. They have mentoring programs in place, a 360-degree review process, independent evaluators – the whole nine yards. I can see how important a fair and equitable promotion/review process is for some of my clients, and yet, the results are still the same – a group of mostly white men at the senior levels of the engineering ladder, members of URGs feeling like they have to battle the boys club, and a sense that the promotion process is unfair.

When digging into this problem, there are any number of contributing factors. But, I’d say by far, the most common thread I’ve found is that promotion processes are overwhelmingly focused on objectively evaluating individuals without consideration of the outcomes. The fallacy of thinking that if we fairly evaluate each individual, we will ultimately end up with a fair evaluation of the whole team. 

Recognition is the first step

The first step to fixing any problem is recognizing that you have a problem – which isn’t as easy as it sounds. First, there’s the possibility your URGs don’t feel safe enough to actually speak about their concerns of unfairness. Then, there’s the possibility that even though they are raising flags, you might not be open to hearing it. After all, you put a lot of work into crafting this promotion process. You were likely in the room when all the decisions were made, you probably even made some of those decisions, and it all seemed normal with nothing tripping your unfairness detectors. And, you may be right. But a hard fact is that 37% of people who leave the technology sector altogether, cite unfairness as a major factor in their decision. And, if the people who are raising concerns about unfairness in your promotion process don’t look like the people in the room making the actual promotion decisions, the Venn diagram of blind spots and your management team has a pretty big overlap.

Systemic solutions for systemic problems

It’s helpful to understand that career stagnation for URGs is a systemic problem that is going to require a systemic solution. Here’s what such a solution might look like.

A Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program

As the Greek poet Archilocus once said, ‘We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.’ Which is to say, if you are not training your organization to become better equity and inclusion practitioners, you will most likely be unsuccessful in creating an equitable and inclusive organization. DEI is a skill. And, like any skill, it can be learned. But it requires consistent practice. You have your basics – like differences between race and ethnicity, sex and gender – to the deeper study of the centuries-old body of scholarly work on racial justice and gender studies. Investing in a DEI program builds your organization’s capacity to have conversations around DEI topics so that when the occasion arises, they will have the fluency and skills to meet the moment.

A sponsorship program

Mentorship is great, but sponsorship is better. Sponsorship is shown to carry a 22-30% career benefit. While mentorship is largely about giving advice, sponsorship is about being on the hook for someone’s career progress. It involves actively extending credibility and opening opportunities for others. Whereas folks in the majority group find sponsorship naturally, research shows that URGs are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Being intentional with how sponsorship works in your org will carry a significant benefit. 

Incorporating inclusive behaviors into your career ladder

As I learned from Mekka Okereke, culture is the set of behaviors that we reward and punish. For most of us, those behaviors are made explicit in our career ladders. When your senior leaders and engineers are the source of marginalizing behavior, it has a multiplicative and chilling effect on an organization. The incentives for seeking promotion are severely deterred if that promotion means working more with people who do not respect you. Incorporating inclusive behaviors into your career ladder makes the expectation explicit that a person will be held back on account of their bad behavior.

A systems check on your promotion process

When it comes to promotions, we rarely check if the system at large has generated an overall correct and fair outcome. To put it in engineering terms, performance reviews look a lot like unit tests: they are focused on a single component and good practice says each test should be independent of the other tests in the suite. The common advice when delivering a performance review is to keep the conversation focused on the individual. ‘We’re not talking about other people, we’re talking about you,’ is the common steer when a report compares themselves to others. And while that tactic is effective in the moment, it does not relieve you of the responsibility to ensure those concerns are either being addressed or are unsubstantiated. 

One way to correct this is to zoom out and look at the big picture. I’m a big fan of using spreadsheet technology to track salary and promotion rates in an org. Having all that information allows for some rudimentary cohort analysis. I like to ask questions like: 

  • If we look at all of our employees at a given level, can we reasonably say they are in the correct peer group?
  • If we order everyone by salary, does it match our understanding of their relative performance and impact?
  • What about our cohorts is surprising? What stands out and why?
  • Who are the people who are struggling right now and what is our plan to help them?
  • What are the demographics of the group getting promotions? Are they all white men? 
  • What’s the average time that someone spends in each level? Does that change depending on race or gender?
  • Does the percentage of money going to a given group match their percent representation of the organization? (a.k.a. the Cate Huston ratio)

Conclusion

A diverse, equitable, and inclusive team is one in which everyone has a chance to succeed and thrive. Getting there takes a lot of work, but those efforts carry ample reward. When organizations build fluency in DEI, conversations around race, ethnicity, and gender no longer become awkward or radioactive. When sponsorship becomes a deliberate practice, opportunities for career growth increase for all of your employees. When system checks on promotion and compensation processes are put into place, the process becomes fairer for everyone. While systemic problems require systemic solutions, they also yield systemic benefits. The investments made to ensure proper recognition and reward for URGs will carry the same benefit to the entire team.