Ending the vague use of “potential”

It’s well-documented that people from underrepresented backgrounds are promoted at lower rates than white, cisgender men. The Kapor Center, for example, has gathered research on the impact of bias on advancement opportunities in the tech industry and beyond. Today I want to zero in on one factor that contributes to this lower promotion rate: the vaguely defined concept of “potential.”

It’s very common for hiring and promotion decisions to be based on someone’s perceived potential to be good at that job, rather than on past indications of performance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It gives people an opportunity to grow into a new role that they might not have otherwise had. But in order for those decisions to be equitable, you need to clearly define what “potential” means for any given role. As I’ve written elsewhere, if it’s not carefully defined, the word “potential” can be a not-so-subtle stand-in for “reminds me of myself at that point in my career,” and that leads to promoting mostly people whose identity is close to your own. This leads to homogeneous leadership teams that are limited in their ability to identify problems that your organization should be solving, holding back both talented individuals and your organization as a whole.

Defining potential for a job means looking at the skills required for the role and being open and flexible about the way those skills could be developed. In particular, think about the “conventional” ways that job skills are often thought about as developing – often through expensive higher education or industry-specific experience that requires personal connections to establish. For example, if your most recent job posting for a particular role says that you require a Bachelor’s degree, ask yourself:

  • What is the specific skill or experience that the Bachelor’s degree signifies that relates to someone being qualified for this job?
  • Is there another way that skill or experience could be attained?
  • In what ways am I using the idea of a Bachelor’s degree as a shortcut for asking for the skill or experience I want from someone starting out in this role?
  • Can I reasonably ask for the skill or experience instead of the Bachelor’s degree?

Additionally, defining “potential” means thinking about what you’re prepared to train someone on and what you need them to already know, or be skilled at, coming into the role. Often, we write a job description with an eye toward what someone who is already succeeding in the role will be able to do. How important is it that the person be able to succeed at those things right away? Questions to ask yourself include:

  • What resources exist internally to help someone learn to do this role?
  • What industry resources exist outside our organization to help someone develop these skill sets?
  • How much time and money can I budget for training?
  • What do other roles in my organization require that would help someone succeed in this role?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role on their first day?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after three months?
  • What do I expect from someone in this role after a year?

Having the answers to these questions will not only enable you to fairly assess a wider range of candidates – it will help you establish clear expectations and enable the person hired to be more effective in the role.

One more note on this: As a manager, you probably have a high degree of control over these things on your own team. You also have the power to advocate for your team members’ advancement into roles that you don’t personally manage. When you’re advocating for a colleague from an underrepresented background to advance into a role that someone else manages, talk to that manager about what they see as potential. Asking them these questions can help them see your colleague as a possibility where they might have previously dismissed them, creating space for a more equitable team to thrive.

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