By Olivier Meier, Mercer
There is a sense of repetition when talking about diversity in the mobile workforce. While awareness of the problem has increased and some companies present remarkable success stories, progress is too slow. Women and some minorities are underrepresented in the mobile workforce, opportunities for career progression at managerial levels remain limited, and pay parity has not been achieved.
“If we all agree about the problem, what’s taking so long?” is the question that comes to mind.
“We agree on the diversity objectives, but we simply don’t find enough candidates with the right qualifications” is a frequent answer.
There is no easy fast track to diversity, unless you want to risk friction within the workforce or even reverse discrimination.
Solving a problem like diversity is not just about reaffirming principles. From a practical perspective it is about building a strong and diverse international talent pipeline.
Identifying Career Progression Drivers
The objective is not just to increase the number of women and minorities on assignments but to leverage the benefits of international experience to build up the leadership pipelines for these groups and achieve diversity at the top managerial level. A first step to achieve this objective is to identify the factors driving career progression and understand how they relate to mobility. To simplify, we can say that career progression is influenced by having:
- The right job. The way to the top within a company is not always direct, and employees will have different positions throughout their careers that will prepare them for top management. However, not all positions are equal when it comes to boosting employees’ careers. The types of positions that are real career accelerators depend on the company and industry sector. In some organizations, having experience in finance might be important to reach top management. In other companies, being a country manager might be a precondition to make it to the top. Global mobility plays a role by allowing high potential employees to access these jobs globally.
- The right skills. The required skillset depends on each company, but is likely to be a mix of technical and managerial competencies (international management) as well as soft skills such as intercultural skills and people management skills. In terms of knowledge, understanding current or future key markets for the company and staying up to speed with new trends are career accelerators.
- The right network. A corporate career is at best about team work and at worst a political game – in any case, the cliché about who you know being as important as what you know is often true. Proximity to top management, the opportunity to exchange and learn from the company’s top designers, best trained engineers, top performing managers, and more generally the ability to network with those who can be qualified as the “top influencers” within the company is a differentiator. The location of employees (at HQ, in a major regional hub, or, less advantageously, in a small remote operation) influences their ability to build an efficient network.
Once the career drivers are identified, finding the benefits of specific roles and assignments and mapping them with overall mobility patterns and mobile talent demographic is a useful exercise.
Working in certain assignment destinations could be identified as a fast track to reach top managerial levels while other destinations could provide little career benefit. Furthermore, finding out that women and minorities are under-represented in essential roles and business locations gives the business an important piece of insight about the source of the problem.
For example, if China is the most important market for a multinational, and experience with the Chinese market is essential to reach top management, yet only a small portion of assignees sent to China are female, gender parity at upper managerial levels will be difficult to achieve. In this case, Talent Mobility is part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. Overall diversity statistics can be misleading. This type of mapping provides the granularity to explain why certain geographies or business units in the organization might perform better or worse on the diversity scale.
Expanding the Mobile Talent Pool
Understanding the best career path might not be sufficient in itself if it doesn’t coincide with an effort to widen the potential mobile talent pool. This can be achieved by:
- Helping re-joiners. Programs can help women (and men) who took a break for personal or family reasons to come back to the workforce.
- Supporting trailing spouses. The inability of employees’ spouses to find work in the host location is one of the greatest barriers to global mobility. Spouses of assignees might have to stop or slow down their careers. Offering them a chance to work during the assignment or helping them rejoin the workforce upon repatriation is a win-win scenario for assignees and companies.
- Exploring talent without formal education or from countries where the credibility of diplomas is hard to assess. New ways of assessing objectively the potential of employees such as gamification are increasingly used by companies as they try to hire a more diverse international workforce that doesn’t share the same educational background as typical headquarter employees.
- Encouraging lateral mobility. From the perspective of career management, lateral moves are about moving between types of jobs as opposed to being promoted within the same job family (vertical moves). Lateral moves are a precondition for talent retention as the number of senior manager positions available in a given company is limited and not all employees can make it to the top. Lateral moves are also a way to build up talent within the company by exposing high potential employees to different departments.
Leveraging Tools and Analytics
The diversity debate is fueled by assumptions about what these groups of employees can or cannot do in specific locations as well as their expectations. Bringing rationality to the debate is a crucial step in the direction of making diversity happen, and analytics can be a way to identify and put the spotlight on shocking diversity gaps.
Workforce progression analyses can be used to measure the career progression of female assignees, and employee attitude surveys to capture female assignee feedback, as well as other indicators such as pay progression analyses, could indicate that there are gender gap issues in general.
It is tempting to jump to conclusions and view analytics and AI as panaceas to solve some of the diversity issues, especially around recruitment and selection. We sometimes hear that “AI doesn’t harbor prejudices” but in reality unconscious biases can spill into an algorithm or an analysis and eventually be reinforced by the results. For example, the success criteria used in the analysis may be based on a specific existing group's profile and could disadvantage individuals from other groups.
New tools can help expose some of the bias but they won’t make them automatically disappear – especially if people using them don’t reconsider some of their thinking and provide practical support.
Providing Support While on Assignment
Many talent policies were not designed with the specific needs of all employee groups in mind. It pays off to:
- Review benefits and allowances with diversity in mind. Without completely changing your policies, make sure that they at least include measures such as day care or spouse support to facilitate global mobility of women. Alternatively, provide the flexibility to re-purpose existing allowances or lump-sums to address the needs of female assignees or minorities.
- Ensure practical implementation: communication, coaching, and mentoring. All too often employees and their spouse are not aware of the support offered by the company. Talk openly about diversity in your policies and encourage internal discussion on this topic. Communicate about role models and success stories.
- Work closer with diversity teams. Make sure that the mobility team is in contact with the diversity team to provide input on mobility issues. Gender parity and diversity are important topics for companies. It’s an opportunity for mobility team to play a strategic role and help solve a major talent management issue.
Fostering Diversity in a Non-diverse World
While companies are making progress on the road to diversity, they face problems when relocating employees to hardship destinations where some categories of assignees could be discriminated against or even put at risk.
One of the objectives of a diversity policy for assignees is to fight the unconscious bias that specific groups cannot go on assignment. Companies need, however, to go one step further and proactively address the barriers to mobility for these groups.
Potential issues should be discussed when assessing the available assignee talent pool rather than later in the process when a candidate has already been selected. The objective is not to exclude employee categories from the selection process but rather to start discussing possible solutions as soon as possible to facilitate global mobility for all employees.
Ultimately, the objective is to balance the need to foster diversity among the assignee population with risk management. Companies needs to strike the balance between subjective issues that can be addressed (if the risk of discrimination is low, it should not be used as an excuse to prevent an employee from going on assignment) and objective problems that represent a risk (companies should not put employees in a difficult situation).
Avoiding Reverse Discrimination and Addressing Cultural Sensitivities
Companies should avoid approaches that could be interpreted as reverse discrimination and give the impression to talent that they can be passed over for promotion just on the basis of belonging to a majority group. The message needs to be a positive one designed to create level playing fields where all employees can progress based on skills and achievement.
Cultural differences should not be underestimated when dealing with diversity matters. The cultural challenge is greatest when the diversity policy is directly at odds with local customs and beliefs. Even if management and employees in different parts of the world support diversity, they might disagree on how to make it happen.
The US approach of proactively promoting specific groups might be at odds with continental European approaches that are focusing on equality and giving individuals the right not to be labelled as someone belonging to a specific group (for example, by forbidding collection of data on ethnicity). Management in some Asian countries might prefer to tackle the issue indirectly by focusing on group harmony rather than discussing diversity as such. This can be a source of misunderstandings and resistance to diversity policies.
Poorly managed diversity policies could lead to accusations of cultural insensitivity or give some employees the impression that they are left out because of what they perceive as reverse discrimination. It is sometimes a good first step to agree on the conclusion that lack of diversity is inacceptable and could harm the business before working out a pragmatic approach that takes into account cultural differences.
Finally, it is important to move from diversity to real inclusion: It’s not just the numbers that matter, but the active participation of women and minorities and their contributions to business at a strategic managerial level that is the goal and a sign that the gap is finally closing. The struggle for real inclusion constitutes an opportunity for HR and mobility teams to be involved in a strategic debate and become champions of a topic that is not just a moral issue but also a business imperative.