How to Create Equity for All Employees at All Stages of Recruiting, Hiring and Employment

Finally, we’re talking about equity.

Not just diversity, or how many individuals of a given race or gender are in the workforce. Not just inclusion, which is often oversimplified to acting in a welcoming or kind way toward people who are not just like us. But equity. We are explicitly discussing whether and how we ensure that all employees enjoy equal access to professional networks, promotions, pay and recognition.

To date, we have not developed the equitable workplaces we say we want. But, with clarity, focused effort and accountability, we can do so.

Elevating the equity conversation gives us the opportunity to be honest with ourselves and each other about the fact that the field is not level, the path is not clear and the at bats accorded to many who exist on dimensions of difference are curveballs. What’s more, the playbooks are usually held in confidence away from those who have never been briefed on the hidden factors required for success.

A good friend once shared how he learned of a fast track to graduating college. Specifically, white fraternity boys had catalogued test question and answers for every class and kept the files in a room that was literally underground.

The bottom line of that anecdote is that some get to slide down chutes on their way to realizing their aspirations. Others must climb ladders.

Just like those test files, the resources people need to thrive at work—insights, access and opportunity—are kept behind closed doors and protected by members of an inner circle. And no matter how commonly the phrase may be used, the resources do not trickle down.

Acknowledge the Roles Insights, Access and Opportunity Play in Unlocking Success on the Job

What do I mean by insights, access and opportunity? An insight is a piece of information like an unwritten rule, a critical bit of business intelligence or a line “everyone” knows not to cross. Access is having direct connections to power networks and knowledge centers. Opportunity often manifests as visible projects, critical roles and promotions.

No one thrives in a workplace without these three crucial enablers. Sadly, they are not distributed uniformly. Often, they are not distributed at all, but instead simply flow, unconsciously and uninterrupted, to those close enough to catch them.

Since we tend to trust and surround ourselves with people who remind us of ourselves (thanks, affinity bias!), the people most like those in power are advantaged. At the same time, those who exist on dimensions of difference have more road to pave in the form of work, more evidence of competence to provide, more bridges to cross and more connections to cultivate.

Recognize the Power Core in Action

To see how insights, access and opportunity function within an organization, picture three concentric circles. The people in power occupy the center, or power core. They hold all the insights, they control access, and they grant opportunities.

The more different someone is from those in the power core, the further removed that person is from the factors that enable success in the organization. Those who are different on multiple dimensions are disadvantaged the most.

Now, consider the many systemic inequities outside the workplace. Someone who comes from a historically disenfranchised group may start their career with fewer insights and less access simply because they have established fewer connections to organizational leaders and insiders who could teach them the rules of the road.

Similarly, some people enter the workforce with more educational debt due to less generational wealth. Some start their careers in isolation, enjoying none of the presumed safety that comes with being part of an in-group.

Data support the assertion that social distance hinders opportunity. McKinsey & Company and the organization Lean In have been tracking women in the workplace for several years, and the story is clear: As careers progress to higher levels of contribution, representation diminishes for Black and brown people, as well as for white women (though to a lesser degree). Black and brown women are the least represented in leadership despite being most likely to aspire to reach the top of their fields.

Set Your Organization on the Path to Equity

Equity has three dimensions: experiences that predict outcomes, systems that promote outcomes and norms that produce outcomes. The best way for employers to create more equitable workplaces is to make each of these dimensions visible to leaders and, then, work consciously to improve each dimension for all employees.

Identify Experiences That Predict Equitable Outcomes

How can we find out the degree to which our workplace culture is equitable? And how might we discover which experiences lead to better outcomes for employees?

Answering those questions seems daunting, but organizations already take the temperature of their workforces in several ways. The problem when it comes to ensuring equity is that asking how committed people might be to the organization is not the same as seeking to reveal truths about the workplace. In short, we do not always ask the right questions.

Experience-based inquiries will help leaders gauge employees’ day-to-day realities and reveal whether they are keeping the promises they make to employees. To draw an example from my own career, a proprietary Waymakers study my firm conducted in partnership with Brandtrust spotlighted which experiences made talent feel seen, respected, valued and protected, as well as which experiences made talent feel invisible, disrespected, underappreciated and scrutinized. Analyses of the survey data revealed that specific experiences and associated emotional states increased employees’ intent to stay and other experiences drove an intent to resign.

The picture for my firm was clear:

  • Increasing visibility and respect unlocked contributions;
  • Valuing people with pay and opportunity made them want to stay;
  • Protecting people inspired them to be more creative and take calculated risks; and
  • Enabling and encouraging managers to do all of those things positively impacted the bottom line.
What Every Person Needs at Work 


Develop Systems That Promote Equitable Outcomes

Providing experiences on an equitable basis opens the door to creating an equitable workplace in which all people are set up to succeed. Unfortunately, firmly entrenched talent systems at most organizations are rife with inequitable orthodoxies. Established ways of doing things have grown so familiar no one even thinks to interrogate policies and procedures. Still, when an attempt to drive equitable outcomes is made, most employers focus on traditional talent processes like recruiting, hiring, performance management and promotions. This makes sense because those inflection points are where critical decisions regarding who wins and who never even enters the game are reached.

Improving these linchpin talent acquisition and employee retention processes requires becoming aware of what every person needs at work, inviting talent in, selecting without bias, equipping and supporting employees to succeed, and committing to growing talent within the organization. A good way to start is giving candidates from diverse backgrounds an equal opportunity to compete for jobs. For instance, organizations can recruit from a broader array of schools and colleges, including minority-serving institutions. They can also require hiring managers to consider diverse slates of applicants and, when appropriate, internal candidates.

To heighten the odds of hiring diverse talent, organizations can mandate diversity on interview panels to mitigate bias in selection. Then, to equip and support talent, organizations can use coaching—as opposed to coercion—more broadly and institute two-way feedback to uncover potential leadership gaps.

When it comes to growing talent, it is important to document and communicate clear and measurable goals and objectives for all jobs. Doing this ensures employees know what to expect and how success will be judged. Setting goals and objectives also facilitates the shift toward basing promotions on outcome-based key performance indicators instead of ambiguous assessments and opinions about who has “it,” who is easy to get along with or who has the “right” temperament or personality.

The above ideas are just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the point. Looking at talent systems through a practical lens can reveal simple and effective ways to remove bias and enable employees from marginalized groups to perform on an equal footing.

Rethink Norms in Order to Produce Equitable Outcomes

As discussed, equity work is systems work. It is naïve to think we can ignore systems as we strive to make genuine progress. We must also remember that people design, implement and propagate systems. As a result, organizations can have clear policies that are not practiced consistently.

Which is one way to emphasize that leaders play a critical role in bringing an organization’s equity vision to life. Leaders must model equitable choices, clarify expectations for others and reward equitable outcomes. Without leaders’ direct engagement and commitment, workplaces will not change and equity goals will remain nothing more than hopes and wishes. How leaders show up every single day—the choices they make, the people they support, the behaviors they celebrate and tolerate—creates and sustains a culture. And if what leaders do does not mesh with what they say, their actions will always speak loudest.

Creating a more equitable environment for employees does not happen by accident. Transforming workplaces into open spaces where everyone has an opportunity to realize their full potential takes more than nice people who mean well. Being honest about the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s culture, defining equitable leadership and standardizing it, and holding everyone accountable are just a few ways organizations can move toward becoming who they say they are—ones that care, succeed and thrive into the future.

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