This past fall, in the midst of the pandemic, Talent Rewire brought together six Los Angeles employers for our first virtual Rewire Accelerator. The goal of the five-week interactive experience was to help employers spark new ways of thinking about how to create workplaces centered on equity and belonging where frontline employees can thrive. The conversations began with employers deeply examining the economic, labor and immigration history of California and Los Angeles, and the city’s current systemic racial inequities. Employers then examined the ways their organizations contribute to these inequitable outcomes for people of color and worked with each other and frontline employees to design new ways of working.
During the program, four themes emerged from our conversations with employers and frontline employees that provide lessons for others thinking about transforming their talent practices.
1. Challenge your assumptions of where “talent” comes from
Several participants in the Accelerator expressed a desire to reach new candidates in their hiring process but confessed that they continually recruit from the same talent pool – people already in their networks.
During our conversations, we encouraged employers to examine what skills are actually required to perform the jobs for which they are hiring, rather than focusing on titles or degrees. By concentrating on the necessary skills to perform the job, employers can remove barriers that prevent people who face systemic barriers to employment from applying to and securing jobs. The Opportunity Navigator and Opportunity@Work’s STAR framework are great resources that offer clear, evidence-based practices to help employers expand their talent pool and create a more equitable hiring process.
2. Build a culture of empathy and belonging where frontline employees can influence change
A second theme that emerged from the Accelerator was that managers don’t always understand or value the work experiences of frontline employees. In fact, several frontline employees shared with us that they regularly feel treated as disposable.
More than anyone, frontline employees have insights gained from their direct experience with day-to-day operations and from interacting with customers. They are also often first to see where improvements can be made to enhance a customer’s experience. If the organization can create a culture of belonging, not only will employees feel valued, but they will also feel empowered to share their insights. Employers must empathize with employees, and deeper respect for their knowledge and experience will lead to a healthier organization — one that acts quickly on feedback to improve the experiences of employees and customers alike.
During the Accelerator, employers and frontline employees explored some creative solutions for generating empathy and belonging. One idea that stood out was the idea of reverse mentorship where junior, frontline employees would regularly share their experiences and insights with management.
“Be more open and inclusive. Cultivate a relationship. Know your employees so they feel comfortable to make mistakes. See me as an individual and not just as an employee.”
– Frontline Employee
3. Ensure opportunities for professional growth are available to everyone
Both employers and employees shared that they valued opportunities for professional growth and learning. One frontline employee said, “I want to be able to grow. I want someone that’s going to push me and not just see me as a person that can be replaced.”
Ensuring that frontline employees have opportunities for professional growth and pathways of advancement is a critical practice of Opportunity Employment and is a proven way to retain talent. Several employees at the Accelerator expressed that growth opportunities were one of the main reasons they would be likely to stay at a company.
It’s also important to note that when announcing growth and advancement opportunities, employers should be inclusive in how they communicate about them. For instance, if communication is always over email, employees without email addresses will be left out. To understand the best way to share news and information with employees, ask them what they would prefer.
“Knowledge and growth will be the centerpiece of employment…Give them the tools and they will stay.”
– Frontline Employee
4. Extend grace to all employees – especially frontline employees
A final theme that emerged from the Accelerator was the need to honor and respond to the everyday lived experiences of frontline employees. If 2020 made anything clear, it’s the fact that employers cannot ignore what is happening in employees’ lives outside of work – especially for frontline employees who have endured the worst of the pandemic’s health, economic, and mental toll.
At the same time, employers acknowledged that when a personal matter arises, flexibility, support, and benefit of the doubt are typically only extended to those in management positions, while junior staff and people who work in frontline roles are held to much more rigid accountability structures. Moreover, benefit of the doubt is often denied to people of color and women, particularly women of color. As an employer, there is a responsibility to support and provide flexibility to all employees, and to extend grace to everyone.
COVID-19, coupled with the increased attention to ongoing systemic racism, has highlighted the ways in which our workforce system is broken and that frontline employees have for too long been seen as disposable. Conversations and actions emerging from our Accelerators give me hope that people are willing to put in the hard work to create a workforce system that prioritizes America’s frontline employees. If your company is considering transforming your talent practices, we encourage you to take the free Opportunity Navigator assessment for inspiration on where to start.