https://www.bbc.com/-(Image credit: Getty Images)
By Josie Cox9th November 2021
Some workers are more likely to get promoted than others, leaving many employees stagnating. This career stall out has a big impact.
Most of the year, Maya, a 32-year-old investment banker in New York City, enjoys her job. But late in the autumn, when promotion season rolls around, she always feels “weird”.
“It’s hard to describe,” she says. “I wouldn’t call it disappointment, because that implies that there was hope. It’s more just a wistfulness. I’ve sort of come to terms with the fact that there’s a good chance I’ll never be in a position that can be considered truly senior.”
Maya, whose surname is being withheld for job-security concerns, started working for her bank eight years ago. Since then, many colleagues who were at her seniority level have leap-frogged her through promotions. It isn’t that she hasn’t moved up at all, but she’s ascended at a slower pace.
She has observed the people getting roles above her are mostly white men, and some white women and black or Asian men. But Maya – who identifies as Latina – as well as a black woman who joined the firm around the same time, have both lagged behind the others in the climb up the corporate ladder.
Now, Maya says she just accepts this as how it’s going to be – and has begun to wonder if she’s even perpetuating the cycle herself. “Maybe I’ve created my own vicious circle. Maybe I’ve become despondent because I don’t expect to get promoted, and perhaps that despondency has become the reason why I’m less likely to get promoted in future.”
Although it’s possible Maya’s theory could relate to her career stagnation, it’s not entirely clear. Statistics show certain groups of people get left behind as others move up the career ladder. Though anyone can find themselves stuck in a role, it happens more often to women, workers of colour and employees of low socioeconomic backgrounds.
This takes an emotional toll on the employees who are left behind.
‘Looking glass merit’
The correlation between progressing at work and motivation is well documented. If you’re doing well, research shows, your productivity, sense of self-worth and loyalty to the company are likely to improve.
But stalling at the bottom of the career ladder has equally well-documented negative effects, impacting workers’ job commitment. When the lack of progression happens over a long time – as opportunities for promotion are repeatedly denied or delayed – the negative impacts will be more severe. And if workers suspect that the lack of progression might be linked to who they are, rather than how they’re doing – much like Maya surmises – then failure to advance can be a cycle of disappointment and disillusionment. This can have long-term effects on both workers’ careers and mental health.
Many of the workers who earn promotions over women and people of colour do so even if they’ve made more missteps in the past. The phenomenon, which favours white men, is called ‘failing up’ – and it’s yet another component of organisational hiring bias that keeps minority workers from career growth and financial success.
“If the majority of your executives are white, and the majority of executives are white male, guess who gets that second chance to prove themselves after they have failed?” says Ruchika Tulshyan, founder of the Seattle-based inclusion strategy firm Candour. “And that’s how we create this pipeline where women, and especially women of colour, are really overlooked in these conversations and in these sorts of opportunities.”
We know certain people progress slower in the workplace than others. In 2020, Professors Paul Ingram and Jean Oh of New York City’s Columbia University found that US workers from lower social-class origins are 32% less likely to become managers than are people from higher origins, for example. More recently, McKinsey & Company and LeanIn’s collaborative 2021 women in the workplace report showed between entry level and the C-suite, women of colour’s representation falls by more than 75%. Subsequently, women of colour in the 423 US and Canadian companies surveyed account for just 4% of C-suite leaders – a number that’s almost flatlined in the past three years.
This is often due to hiring bias. Lauren Rivera, an assistant professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, US, studied hiring processes at 120 major employers, a third of which were banks. Her findings showed personal bias greatly impacted hiring decisions, meaning those within the top positions holding hiring power – often white men – generally filled higher ranks with people who shared their own traits.
Rivera calls this phenomenon “looking glass merit”, which describes the unconscious tendency humans have to define worthiness in a way that is self-validating. “These firms leave a lot of discretion to evaluators – ‘I want you to pick somebody that’s driven!’ – but they don’t tell you what drive looks like, [so] people end up defining it in their own image,” she wrote while presenting her research findings.
This is particularly a problem, according to Rivera, because hiring is “one of those critical gate-keeping moments whereby the judgments we make about people have enduring effects”. Ultimately, this maintains the damaging cycle of who gets left behind – disproportionately ethnic minorities, lower-class workers and people of colour, like Maya.
The cost of getting left behind
Yet, as diverse workers stagnate at the bottom of the career ladder, problems add up.
Maya’s case illustrates how consistently being overlooked for promotion can lead to despondency and self-blame. But stagnating in a position as colleagues climb can also contribute to workers’ feelings of outsiderness.
This is the case for 29-year-old Nicole, who is the only black person, and one of only two women in her 10-person team, at a tech company in San Francisco. As colleagues have progressed, Nicole has been left behind at a relatively junior rank since joining the company in 2019.
She reports a white man who joined the team at the same time as her and at the same seniority level was promoted at the end of 2020, while she remained in her same position. “He and our boss, who’s also white and also male, went to the same school. They also share similar interests – sports, mainly – and I can’t help but suspect that that enhanced my colleague’s chances of being promoted over me,” she says.
Maybe I’ve become despondent because I don’t expect to get promoted, and perhaps that despondency has become the reason why I’m less likely to get promoted in future – Maya
This stagnation, coupled with being a minority employee in her organisation, has made her feel like a constant “outsider”. In ways, this feeling has chipped away at her confidence and any determination she’d previously fostered to get promoted, especially as she reports feeling regularly excluded from social events, and hasn’t built friendships at work.
“I feel like my chances of eventually being promoted to a senior position are extremely slim, but I’m also not sure I really ever want to be the face of an organisation that makes me feel like such a minority,” says Nicole, whose surname is also being withheld.
A study from the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, Canada, shows that feeling excluded, ignored or overlooked – even ostracised, as Nicole reports sometimes feeling – in the workplace can be extremely detrimental. Feeling a sense of belonging, the researchers conclude, is a basic human need, and “those who are deprived of a basic need exhibit a variety of maladies that extend beyond mere discomfort, including greater stress and strain, poorer health, and lower emotional and psychological wellbeing”.
Fixing ingrained company culture isn’t easy – but addressing systemic failures in hiring and implicit bias are necessary for breaking this detrimental cycle.
Maya agrees that corporate culture is the root of the problem. She says many of her managers over the years have addressed the symptoms – by openly acknowledging the lack of diversity at the top end of the seniority spectrum, for example – but few have shown efforts to address the root cause.
“I get that ‘culture’ can be an overwhelming word, because it’s sort of intangible and hard to define. But if we don’t start properly addressing it and figuring out how it needs to change, nothing will get done,” she says.
Claire McCartney, a senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK, says that first and foremost, human resource departments have a clear role to play “in ensuring that the processes for promotion are standardised and transparent”. And HR also needs to “ensure that line managers are trained to consistently follow these agreed processes for promotion, and that objective rather than subjective criteria are used when making promotion decisions,” she says.
Additionally, Rebecca Piekkari, a professor of international business at Aalto University School of Business in Helsinki, Finland, stresses the importance of the role of the individual manager to help workers reach their full professional potential. She emphasises the value of self-reflection. Leaders, she says, should ask themselves a series of questions: why and how have I reached my current position? Is it solely due to my skills and capabilities or do my demographics and social background play a role here? Why do I want to promote a certain individual?
“It is important to identify one’s own privileges so that it is possible to detach privilege from skills and recognise the talent and diverse capabilities of minority groups,” she says. “Stand-alone diversity and inclusion initiatives or programmes do not necessarily improve the situation unless an inclusive culture is in place.”
Nicole says she doesn’t think managers understand small actions do have the potential to make a big difference. “I would love one of my managers just to sit me down from time to time and tell me that I’m doing a good job or that I’m an important part of the team,” she says. “It’s basic, but it would just help me believe that I actually deserve to be part of this team as much as anyone else.”
Maya has said that she’s found strength and comfort by forging professional relationships with people who are going through the same thing as she is – people who also feel like they’re stuck in a role and at a seniority level not because of how good they are at their job, but because of who they are.
In August, she joined a network for women of colour working in finance through which she’s met a slew of people who feel they’re facing the same challenges she is. “The nicest thing has been understanding that I’m not alone and I’m not weird for feeling the way I do,” she explains. Through the network, she recently met a hiring manager – a woman of colour – who expressed interest in recruiting Maya.
As for whether Maya is planning on leaving her current position, she says she’s not sure. “The prospect of dramatic change is a little scary, but I can’t pretend I’m not tempted to work for someone who looks like me,” she says. “Who knows if I’ll ever have this opportunity again.”