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How to Create Objective Career Frameworks that Level the Playing Field

Nov 4, 2021| Reading time: 12min

BY Kerrel Brown

Senior Marketing Manager

Most organizations aren’t making enough progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, and their leaders know it.

Nearly 90% of HR executives feel their company hasn’t done enough to increase diversity representation, according to Gartner.

Building an objective career framework can help your business advance DEI. A career framework is a roadmap that shows employees where they sit in the organization. It shows people which job family they belong to and which competencies they need to move to a more senior role. Such a framework answers the question, “How do I progress?”

This type of objective framework is particularly important to DEI initiatives because employees from underrepresented groups typically come up against several barriers to growth and professional development throughout their work lives. For example, research shows women earn less than men, people with disabilities have lower callback rates, and transgender people are more likely to quit their jobs to avoid discrimination at work.

Ultimately, your DEI efforts will fail if your career frameworks don’t account for these biases. On the other hand, if your business can create fair, clear career growth frameworks, all employees have an equal opportunity to grow their skillset and increase their income. 

Here’s a look at what it takes to introduce inclusive career paths that give all employees the same shot at development.

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Clarify Your Company’s Specific Career Framework Goal

To create an equitable career framework, clarify what your company wants its career pathing program to achieve. Jonny Burch, CEO of Progression, said career ladders are most effective when you know the issue you want to address: “There are several reasons why it can be useful to have a progression framework. Very much like hiring, it would be lovely to solve all of them in one fell swoop but chances are there are one or two that will be ‘urgent’ for the team. Focus on the one problem you need to solve first.”

Perhaps you want a career framework that promotes pay equity. That was the case for Medium and its engineering growth framework, which requires that employees performing at the same level must be “compensated equally” and that “level-based salary and equity is the same for all engineers at the same overall level.”

Meanwhile, Buffer’s goal in implementing a career framework was to answer a specific question about career planning: “Is it possible to grow horizontally rather than vertically?” Buffer knew it had to look beyond traditional career ladders that focused on the management track to answer this question. So, it created specific career paths for individual contributors.

By clarifying your goal, your career framework responds to your company’s most urgent people challenges. Perhaps the challenge is an absence of diversity in the management ranks, unfair promotion practices in a specific department, or a biased performance management review process throughout the organization.

Develop Strategies to Give Employees an Equal Path to Growth

Embed DEI in your career framework to give all employees an equal path to growth.

You need to develop strategies to level the playing field because employees from underrepresented communities face more barriers to success throughout their working lives. For example, research from the New York University Stern School of Business found Black and Hispanic applicants were less likely to get a callback, interview, and job offer. And according to the Center for WorkLife Law and the Society of Women Engineers, white men enjoy greater access to “glamour work”—high-profile assignments that set employees up for promotion.

There are several ways to embed DEI initiatives in your career framework:

Make an understanding of DEI a requirement for promotion.

At Intercom, inclusive leadership is a necessary competency in the product manager career ladder. The person who fills the role “acts as a role model for collaborative and inclusive behaviour, [and] proactively finds the barriers that slow people down and systematically removes those barriers.”

Create specific career paths for employees from underrepresented groups.

Other companies develop specific career progression frameworks to compensate for discrimination in the labor market. Some organizations, for example, offer returnship programs—career paths for women reentering the workforce. These programs seek to support employees who took a career break for more than a year. Returnship programs run for up to 16 weeks, providing training and mentoring. When the program is complete, the company has the option to offer the employee a full-time job.

Mitigate bias during performance conversations.

Organizations must also be willing to identify and eliminate bias in their HR processes to give employees an equal path to growth.

DEI consultancy Seramount’s Diversity Best Practices program recommends a number of steps to mitigate bias during performance conversations.  One such step is not letting a manager see their employees’ self-evaluations before the manager completes their own evaluation of those employees. That’s because reviewing self-evaluations first perpetuates anchoring bias, our tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information we receive to make decisions. 

Unfortunately, if you don’t account for this bias, you’ll end up perpetuating inequality during the evaluation process. Women, for example, tend to describe their performance less favorably than men, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research paper. So, according to the anchoring bias, if their manager were to see their employees’ self-evaluations before giving their own evaluations, they might let the self-evaluations affect their own assessments.

Review employee data.

Finally, you should review data on key indicators like employee engagement, retention, and training on an ongoing basis. Check whether there are potential areas for improvement. For example, are women and people of color accessing fewer employee training programs than men? Then, dig deeper. Perhaps, you find training opportunities are not shared across the organization. Armed with that data, you’ll be able to take action. You can run quarterly surveys to assess skills gaps, and managers can set up training KPIs for all employees.

Establish a Formal Coaching Culture

Establishing a formal coaching culture gives your entire workforce frequent manager feedback that helps them grow. All employees will also gain access to senior leaders who can bring awareness to their work.

This type of culture can also help level the playing field for underrepresented groups, only 22% of whom typically have access to mentoring or sponsorship, according to the Diversity Hiring Report. And, according to the MIT Sloan School of Management, people who are different from their managers typically have less access to informal coaching due to unconscious bias.

Instead, a formal coaching culture guarantees every employee has an advocate at work. Fortunately, as HR, you can take three practical steps to establish a coaching culture:

  • Create specific key performance indicators (KPIs) for coaching. Wise uses transparent career maps to increase gender diversity on its product management team and emphasizes coaching in its career ladder for managers. Ultimately, this means principal product managers must develop growth plans and deliver “actionable feedback that results in improvements of product delivery.”
  • Set up formal programs involving an employee’s manager and skip-level manager. According to Gartner, “this enables employees to grow their network and increase their senior level exposure, while avoiding placing everything on their direct manager. Responsibility for development is shared across the parties, all accountable to each other and to the organization.”
  • Develop managers’ coaching skills to apply “coaching thinking” during conversations about career planning.

All workers should have leaders who are willing to go to bat for them when development opportunities arise. This is key for cultivating equity in your workplace.

Connect Your Career Levels to Your Compensation Model

Tie the company’s career frameworks to clear, objective pay scales. Mapping compensation to career frameworks promotes salary transparency and pay equity.

Tuff, a fully remote growth marketing firm, decided to connect its compensation model to its career framework by creating a formula for calculating salaries across role profiles. “It was also important to us to use a data source and apply structure to our salaries to reduce bias and hold us accountable to paying people fairly.”

To connect your career framework to your compensation model, ensure that you have an objective salary formula with global skills-based criteria for growth levels. Human resources teams agree that taking a data-based approach to your formula is crucial. Use tools like Payscale’s salary calculator to view salaries based on market data, and implement people analytics software to remove bias from your compensation strategy.

Use Career Frameworks to Create an Inclusive, Equitable Workplace

Clear career frameworks keep employees happy, according to a TINYpulse survey. However, these career ladders must prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion from the outset. Career pathing that fails to account for discrimination against employees will reinforce inequality. As a result, you’ll see wider wage and skills gaps in your organization.

When you do invest in an objective career framework, your company becomes a great place to work where every employee can fulfill their potential. To get started, engage with business leaders to build consensus around why your company needs to invest in equitable, inclusive career growth for employees and how you’ll do so.

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