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Transparency Is Key to Making Employee Development More Equitable

July 14, 2022 Learning and Development
Heather Gilmartin Adams
By Heather Gilmartin Adams

Organizations are continuing to ramp up efforts on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) even as the upheavals and social movements of 2020 fade further into the past. They know that building diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures isn't just a check-the-box exercise, and it isn’t just the right thing to do. It can be a competitive advantage.

Within this context, we at RedThread Research studied how learning and development functions can help drive DEIB efforts in their organizations. One of the most important things is to make certain aspects of employee development more transparent.

Why is transparency so critical? Some employee groups run into obstacles trying to find and participate in development, and transparency is a first step toward reducing or removing those obstacles, ultimately giving employees more equitable opportunities to develop.

The Three Elements of Transparency

High-performing organizations understand the importance of transparency. Our research found that more employees in high-performing organizations said their organizations are transparent about the development opportunities available to employees, compared to other organizations (81% vs. 61%).

Specifically, there are three aspects of employee development could be more transparent:

  • Development opportunities that are available.
  • Decisions about who gets access to which opportunities.
  • Who’s participating in development opportunities.

More transparency on these elements can spark actions that make employee development more equitable and inclusive. Let’s look at how.

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Transparency About Opportunities That Are Available

Organizations often advertise development opportunities only to employees with an immediate or obvious need for those opportunities.

Think of newsletters and email distribution lists with information about opportunities or recommendation algorithms in learning platforms. Who receives the newsletter or email? Who sees which recommendations? Typically, the answers to these questions are determined by employee roles or career paths. Employees are only sent information deemed to be relevant to them. For example, a marketing manager might receive certain information and recommendations, while a frontline manufacturing employee receives different ones.

Limiting who sees which opportunities makes sense on the surface, as L&D functions don’t want to overwhelm employees with irrelevant options. But there’s a big downside: Employees aren’t given the information, freedom and equity to determine their own paths. They don’t know all that’s available so they’re limited in their choices. What’s more, while some employees can get around these limitations by drawing on their personal networks to learn about opportunities they wouldn’t find otherwise, others can’t.

To be more transparent about the opportunities that are available, L&D functions can:

  • Make all opportunities in the learning platform (LMS, LXP or other) visible to anyone. Often, what’s visible to a given employee is limited based on their role, function or seniority. Removing these limitations allows employees to at least know what development opportunities exist.
  • Work with other teams to implement a talent marketplace. These marketplaces can make projects, gigs, rotations, jobs, content and mentoring opportunities more explicit and discoverable by anyone in the organization.
  • Cast a wide communications net. It can be helpful to advertise opportunities using multiple channels, including non-tech channels. Sometimes a paper flyer in a break room might be the most effective medium.
  • Open up distribution lists. If there are different newsletters or email distribution lists for various opportunities, L&D functions can publish those lists and allow employees to opt into them.

Making all opportunities visible opens wider ranges of possibilities for employees. Even if an employee can’t participate in an opportunity now, perhaps because they’re not ready or qualified, they know it’s there. They can start preparing for opportunities they might be able to participate in down the road.

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Transparency in Decision-making About Who Can Access Opportunities

In many organizations, managers and other decision-makers can inadvertently introduce bias into decisions about who gets access to certain development opportunities. For example, in one professional services firm, an HR leader noticed that more men than women were approved for a prestigious leadership development track. When women applied, they were likelier to be told they were too aggressive, weren’t ready for leadership and needed remedial coaching.

The HR leader realized the senior leaders who approved candidates for the leadership development track had implicit biases that influenced their decisions. This leader started fixing the situation by making clear what had been happening. She said: "We showed the data and questioned the partners. Would you give that same feedback to a man?"

Recognizing their inequitable decisions prompted the senior leaders not only to standardize the criteria they used to approve or deny a candidate for the leadership development track, but also to change the feedback they provided to candidates about their readiness for leadership.

This HR leader’s story is far from unique. One of the most common themes we heard from HR leaders involved unintentional bias in decisions about who was nominated or approved for opportunities. Inequity may also be the result of decisions about which languages to offer opportunities in, which tech platforms to use for delivery, or how opportunities are paid for.

Transparency is key to counteracting biased decision-making, and L&D functions can use data to reveal potential biases in decisions. Specifically, they can:

  • Make nomination criteria and decisions transparent. L&D functions can establish, publicize and enforce standardized criteria for nomination-based opportunities.
  • Collect data on who has access to which development opportunities. L&D functions can analyze that data by categories like frontline status, gender identity, age, race/ethnicity or other demographics that matter to their organizations. With this data, they can see where bias might be affecting decisions about who can access certain opportunities.
  • Collaborate to identify inequities. L&D functions can work with employees outside L&D to identify groups of employees who should have access to development opportunities but don’t. Common partners include employee resource group (ERG) leaders and DEIB team members.

What these suggestions have in common: L&D functions can use data and transparency to drive changes that make employees’ access to development more equitable.

Related Article: Experimentation Is the Future of Enterprise Learning

Transparency About Who’s Participating

Employees often decide whether to participate in a development opportunity based on whether they can see themselves in that opportunity. in other words, do they feel the opportunity is for "people like me." If not, they’re less likely to participate.

Some of the things that influence whether employees see themselves in an opportunity include:

  • The language and visuals used to describe the opportunity: Are they diverse and inclusive?
  • Current and past participants: Do they represent the full range of employees who could participate in the opportunity?
  • The design of the opportunity: Does the opportunity accommodate different schedules, tech capabilities, time zones or languages?

To build future-ready workforces, organizations need as many employees as possible to participate in development opportunities. Letting some employee groups fall through the cracks because opportunities aren’t inclusive isn’t just unfair to employees. It's a hindrance to the organization’s ability to compete in the future. Which means L&D functions must know where the cracks are.

Looking for differences in participation rates can help L&D functions understand which employees might feel an opportunity is for “people like me” — and which employees might not. Armed with this data, L&D functions can dig deeper to find out what’s driving differences in participation.

Fortunately, “butts in seats” is one of L&D’s most well-established metrics. If demographic data is also available, L&D functions can slice and dice their participation data to answer questions such as:

  • How do participation rates vary by gender, ethnicity, age, frontline status or other demographics that matter to the organization?
  • What differences in participation show up if we look at intersectional identities (e.g., Black women, frontline men)?
  • Are different groups of employees participating in various types of opportunities, for example, required training versus stretch or rotational assignments?

The answers to these questions can help L&D functions identify whom to ask why they're not participating. With that information, L&D functions can more effectively decide how to adjust language, visuals, participant demographics, opportunity design, and so on, to make opportunities more inclusive.

Looking forward, we expect L&D functions will continue to make strides to improve DEIB in their organizations. We hope they’ll use transparency as a powerful change agent within employee development. This transparency can spark real and meaningful shifts that make employee development itself more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

About the Author

Heather Gilmartin Adams is a senior analyst at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past 10 years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the US Department of the Treasury.

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