Article originally published in Forbes March 15, 2022.
In nature, the world constantly seeks balance—asserting that each half of a whole has the same value. When that equilibrium is challenged the entire ecosystem is at risk. Interdependency demands equity in order for all to thrive.
As we exited Black History Month and entered Women’s History Month, these thoughts of nature stick in my mind. Lacking human ability to reason, plants and animals unconsciously seek balance. Yet, for all our advancement, we humans continue to struggle with creating an equitable world. Off-balance, we put at risk everyone when we fail to implement innovative approaches to a persistent problem.
From my work in transformation, I’ve been exploring (with the fantastic John Boudreau) the future of work, workers and the workplace. It’s become clear that the traditional work operating system, one based on jobs and jobholders remains a barrier to increasing diversity and equity. Finding a solution is urgent: companies are reporting sustained pressure to improve diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI). In fact this pressure has doubled in just two years, to 65% from 31%, according to Mercer’s Stepping up for Equity report. And no wonder when you consider that racial bias in the workplace alone, annually costs U.S. business $54.1 billion in increased absenteeism, $58.7 billion in lost productivity and $171.9 billion in turnover, according to SHRM.
So, if our traditional work operating system is a barrier to improving DEI and failing to improve DEI is costing companies billions, what kind of operating system will create sustainable equity instead of sustained pressure? A new work operating system based on deconstructed tasks matched to skills and capabilities instead of jobs matched to jobholders can more naturally create equity for all workers. Consider that the traditional job-based system inclines leaders to consider DEI episodically, typically when filling a job or promoting a jobholder. Yet, we know that achieving DEI success requires management across all work interactions. A system of work without jobs with its emphasis on the agile movement of talent to work through projects, assignments and gigs puts the focus squarely on these ongoing interactions and presents far more frequent opportunities to choose, assign, reward, and develop team members as tasks/projects and team memberships are fluid and perpetually reinvented.
The need to move away from an episodic approach is clear. In the U.S., for example, organizations are hiring Black talent at a robust pace, but much of that talent isn’t staying. Turnover rates are substantially higher for Black employees, at 26% compared to 17% for non-Black employees, and they are equally high for Black managers, according to Mercer. Since manager levels are typically the gateway to more senior leadership ranks, you can see how building out a diverse leadership team can by stymied by turnover (according to McKinsey, Black managers account for just 7% of the managerial population).
Of course, bias in acquiring talent remains an area still in need of improvement. Here, again, a new work operating system creates opportunity. In a skill-based system we can eliminate the need for traditional routes of experience and thereby eliminate the biased practice of rejecting qualified candidates without 4-year college degrees—a notably poor marker for skills. After all, nearly two-thirds of Black individuals and more than half of Hispanic individuals in the U.S. labor force are identified as “STARS” (skilled through alternative routes), according to the nonprofit Opportunity@Work. The same group has also found that millions of STARs have demonstrated skills for roles with salaries at least 50% higher than their current job. What great talent gets missed when we lock ourselves into dated beliefs around the definition of “qualified”?
On our current trajectory, McKinsey estimates it will take about 95 years for Black employees to reach talent parity and, according to the World Economic Forum, it will take 99.5 years for women to reach parity. Closing the pay gap will take time as well. On average, Black men earn just $0.71 for every dollar and Black women make just $0.63 for every dollar paid to white men, according to Economic Policy Institute. Despite these sobering statistics, opportunity to accelerate the pace toward equity abounds. For example, less than 20% of organizations offer mentorship, sponsorship, high-potential or mobility programs specifically for Black employees, according to Mercer. Imagine if that number flipped to 80% offering such programs?
By thinking and acting in new ways, such as seeing and organizing work and workers by tasks and skills and not jobs, we have a real opportunity to put inequality on the “endangered” list. And that’s one extinction event I’d happily see.