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Should companies put underrepresented workers on a fast-track to the top?

What's the best way to diversify the corner office?

Out of all the upper managers in retail banks, less than 4 percent are African American. That’s according to a new study, out recently from the NAACP. It says there are plenty of diverse workers in mid- and lower-level jobs, but at the current rate, it would take over a decade, maybe even two, before those workers were promoted into upper management.

One suggestion, from the NAACP: To get things moving more quickly, fast-track underrepresented workers.

Addie Perkins Williamson is a consultant to the banking industry. She’s also African American. She says her first job out of grad school, at a big national bank about 15 years ago, still shapes the work she does today.

"That’s where I first learned that there were written rules and unwritten rules," she says.

Written rules, like everyone has the same shot at a promotion.

"But the time frames for moving up, for white males vs. everybody else, were a little bit different," she said. "It was expected, if you were a woman, or a person of color, it would take you longer. And that was just pretty much a given."

The NAACP says bias like this is one reason why there are so few African American or Latino workers in upper management, though there are plenty in the middle. So, they ask, why not just promote those workers through the ranks faster?

Steve Blader, who teaches management at NYU’s Stern School of business, points out being on the fast-track doesn’t mean an overnight promotion to CEO.

"Fast-tracking doesn’t take the form of literally skipping milestones and rites of passage, but breezing through them," he says.

Instead, he says, a worker fulfilling a mid-level management position, might be there for a year instead of four.

None of the banks wanted to discuss fast-tracking. But Blader says, even if fast-tracking isn’t officially acknowledged, it’s a common practice, and so are the problems it can cause – no matter what demographic the fast-tracked worker is from.

Imagine, says Blader, that you’re a worker watching your colleague get promoted quickly.

"I feel demotivated," he says. "I feel that no matter how hard I try, I may not benefit from all those efforts, because [the organization is] prioritizing things besides my efforts, and skills, and abilities. And as a result, I'm going to become more complacent, because I’m going to kind of start to feel like, 'What’s the point?"

Blader notes that that resentment can lead to a less productive workplace -- and a thorny question: Is it fair to fast-track certain demographic groups?

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton, says, hold on a minute. The rules of the workplace have changed. Fast-tracking, he points out,  happens all the time, with all kinds of workers -- only about a quarter of promotions, he says, happen the old fashioned way.

"You see a lot more level-skipping in people’s careers," he says. "People are advancing faster than they did a generation ago. So everybody who gets to the top is on something like a fast-track, at least compared to what you would have seen a generation ago."

Fast-tracking specific groups of employees, says Cappelli, can work. But the business case needs to be spelled out for employees.

"'It does matter, we’re not being arbitrary about this. Just as in the past we needed more people with marketing expertise, now we need more people who look like our customer base.'"

Williamson, the corporate consultant, agrees.

"The skill set you need to create an environment that is engaging for diverse people is the same skill set you use in a global marketplace environment," she says. "If you’re going to do business in China, the same skill set for developing relations, understanding people who are not like you, is necessary."

And, as a consultant, Perkins Willamson helps companies get fast-tracking right. First, she says, make sure you’re promoting outstanding workers -- though she says a lack of competence isn’t usually the problem.

"What tends to happen is they don’t have enough relationships," she says -- especially if they’re workers with new responsibilities.

"So if you’re new, and you need a complete new IT system for your strategic initiative, and you don’t know the head of IT, you can’t get your project pushed up ahead… So you’re waiting two years to get the IT support you need, because you don’t have enough relationships."

Williamson says companies need to support, even engineer those relationships.

Five big banks declined interviews on fast-tracking but several said diversity is an area they know needs work. Workers of color were skittish too, some saying they didn’t want to be seen as troublemakers.  But Stasia WashingtonManaging Director of First Foundation Bank in California, and one of the 4percent of African Americans in upper management, was willing to talk.

"I’ve been fast tracked throughout my entire career," she said.

Washington says for her career, the support of a sponsor was essential.

While experts don’t see eye to eye on fast-tracking, they do agree diversity programs will only be effective if they’re supported from the top. Luckily for Washington, that’s exactly where her eyes were focused. She was too busy, she says, to notice any colleagues that might have been grumbling about promotions coming her way.

"I never paid attention to it," she said. "I’ve always had my head down. You know, what other people think about you is none of your business."

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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