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Microaggressions, diversity, and career advancement: Why Black workers are joining the Great Resignation

April 15, 2022, 9:50 PM UTC

As the Great Resignation continues and workers migrate to new positions with better benefits and greater salaries, not every employee’s motivation is the same for transitioning to a different role. 

Generally speaking, workers are seeking out new employers for potential wage increases. Forty-nine percent of the workforce believe they’ll make more money just by switching jobs, and compensation was the top point of consideration for most workers—53%—when it came to accepting or rejecting a new job, per the 2022 Job Seeker Nation Report

Black workers, however, were more likely to seek different jobs because of a lack of career momentum. An estimated 8 million Black Americans left their jobs in 2021, and one of the factors to blame for this mass exodus was systemic glass ceilings. While Black employees are highly likely to be enterprising—65% of Black professionals labeled themselves as ambitious as opposed to 53% of white professionals, according to Coqual’s Being Black in Corporate America report—they still face high promotion gaps in comparison to their white peers. Black employees left early-career jobs in droves due to barriers to advancement—such as a lack of allyship and support in their workplace, according to a study by McKinsey. But those were not the only issues that were driving the high attrition rates for Black workers. 

Black employees are dramatically underrepresented in positions of power

Nearly a quarter—23%—of Black men feel someone of their race or ethnicity would never achieve a top position at their companies, per Being Black in Corporate America. And almost two-thirds of Black professionals—65%— said Black employees have to work harder to advance, the report found. But the problem is, they’re not advancing. 

Black employees account for just 7% of managers, according to the McKinsey study. And only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black. Black women in particular are severely underrepresented in senior leadership roles, accounting for just 1.4% of C-suite positions and 1.6% of VP roles, according to the Lean In’s The State of Black Women in Corporate America report.

“Most people would accept that if you can’t see [it], it’s unlikely you can be it,” Raj Tulsiani, the cofounder of Race Equality Matters, a nonprofit committed to supporting racial equality in the workplace, told Fortune. “There are so few role models that have attained a level of seniority or are on the path to seniority for Black workers to feel like they can ‘be it’. For instance, in the recent FTSE 100 there were no Black CEOs at all. What we’re seeing indicates that while there’s increased attention on corporate narrative, there’s a decrease in Black heritage.”

Black employees don’t feel valued in their workplaces

Over 80% of BIPOC employees have experienced microaggressions of some sort in the workplace, according to a report by Savanta, a market research company. And 40% of Black women said their qualifications were questioned and that they regularly needed to provide more evidence of their competence, as opposed to 28% of white women, the study found. Also, a mere 23% of Black employees felt they received “a lot” or “quite a bit” of support to advance, per the McKinsey study. Being overlooked at work and having to constantly deal with racial microaggressions and differential treatment can be grating for many Black employees

“Black employees are less likely to feel valued in the workplace, and they also are less likely to have sponsors willing to advocate for their promotion and long-term career advancement,” said Elyse Rosenblum, founder and managing director of Grads of Life, a company that partners with corporations to implement DEI strategies and advance economic justice. “All of this adds up to a scenario where Black employees are more motivated than their white counterparts to seek other opportunities and ultimately find a place where they can thrive long term.”

How can companies improve employee retention for Black workers? 

High attrition rates are often linked to an incompatible or toxic workplace, and one-third of workers who left a job in the first 90 days said it was due to poor company culture, according to Allie Kelly, CMO of Employ Inc., a talent acquisition tech and services company. Additionally, almost one-third of BIPOC employees have left their jobs due to a lack of diversity and inclusion at their companies, according to Savanta’s report.

To create a more equitable and diverse workplace, Kelly supports a multistep process. She suggests that companies that would like to foster more inclusive work environments focus on hiring events that bring together niche audiences like veterans or with historically Black colleges and universities. Additionally, companies should utilize free tools, like the Job Description Grader, to help write more inclusive job descriptions to improve DEI efforts, Kelly suggests.  

The four key drivers of retention for Black employees and employees of color are an inclusive culture, effective people managers, family sustaining wages and benefits, and transparent career pathways, according to Rosenblum.

“A lack of diversity can perpetuate a lack of belonging among underrepresented talent, which can drive employees out the door,” Rosenblum told Fortune. “We know that people leave managers, not companies, and so investing in things like manager training to support an inclusive culture and holding managers accountable for DEI outcomes is vitally important.”

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