“Upskilling,” or developing an existing employee’s abilities, increased in popularity in 2020, with an estimated 38 percent of the workforce being trained from within—a sharp uptick from only 14 percent in 2019.1 Upskilling and “reskilling” are efficient ways to help organizations fill the skill gaps that almost 9 in 10 leaders say are looming.2 But what many managers don’t realize is that developing internal talent has a secret superpower: When done with intention, investment and impact, upskilling can also help organizations meet—and surpass—their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) goals.
Human Resource Services Consultant Kim Robinson, SHRM-SCP, and HR Consultant (Southern Regional Office) Jade Johnson-Masuen, PHR, share why developing talent from within can help businesses and nonprofits break out of homogenous talent management ruts.
“Affinity bias means we’re naturally inclined to look for people who are ‘just like me,’” explains Jade. “We forget the world is full of many more people who are not like us than those who are. We need to embrace everyone and every skill set in our organizations.”
There are many ways organizations can link internal development to DEI efforts. Visible mentors who help connect people from underrepresented groups to networking and development opportunities can help employees with overlooked skills advance.
“Organizations also need to be very intentional about career-pathing,” says Kim. “They need to know where an employee is now, where they want to go, and create the incremental steps and benchmarks they need to meet to get there.”
Jade and Kim advocate for looking outside of traditional career paths, focusing on the skills needed for each particular position, and then looking for internal employees from underrepresented groups who have those skills—or are ready and willing to build them.
This intentional approach to filling skills-gaps requires investment and creativity. It demands looking beyond assumptions about roles and titles to see what it means to actually do the job.
“Asking what skills people need to be successful in a particular position takes discipline,” Kim says.
Instead of asking whether someone has on-paper experience in a similar role or industry, managers have to get into the concrete specifics: What functional skills are needed to do this job? And are there people in the organization who can learn them? Managers need to get clear on their own skills and gaps to do this clear assessment work.
“Skills-based hiring and promotion helps us step away from that ‘like me’ affinity bias,” Kim explains. “Which is the number-one enemy of diversity.”
It’s a deeper way of thinking about skills development that may also demand new tools and processes.
“How often has the organization made the investment to understand the skills they already have?” Jade asks. “They can forget that there’s a high cost attached to bringing someone in from the outside, too.”
Especially when you count the expense of replacing diverse employees who leave for better opportunities.
“When organizations fail to develop talent internally, they risk losing those people,” Jade continues. “Because the talent market is so tight, and will continue to be, it just makes sense to focus on developing existing talent.”
Finally, Jade and Kim stress the importance of measuring the impact upskilling efforts have on your DEI goals.
“Are you moving the needle?” Jade asks. “Are you talking to these underrepresented groups? Are you helping them grow?”
Stay interviews can be one way to track what your underrepresented employees value, what skills they possess, and what ones they want to develop. They can also feed more informed and proactive internal development—if managers are asking the right questions and listening well.
Kim says tracking where careers stall at your organization can also lead to breakthroughs. “If you’re willing to look at the data and say, ‘here’s where the bottlenecks are,’ you may be able to get at where people are stuck,” she says. Pinpointing those trouble spots, whether it’s an organizational, retention, development or management issue, can lead to powerful, inclusive changes.
“We know that a focus on inclusion leads to good business results,” says Kim. “People don’t always see the direct tie from their bottom line to a diverse workforce, but it’s there—and there’s plenty of data to support it.”
- “The 2021 Workplace Learning Trends Report,” Udemy Business. Accessed 25 March 2022.
- “Beyond hiring: How companies are reselling to address talent gaps,” McKinsey & Company, 12 February 2020. Accessed 25 March 2022.