The end of the road for sponsorship programmes

Sponsorship programmes may be impeding rather than boosting diversity, according to CIPD research

Biased decisions on recruitment and promotion are one of the key sticking points for organisations wanting to improve workforce diversity.

Mentoring, coaching and sponsorship are three related practices touted as helping disadvantaged and minority groups advance their careers. Our Diversity Management that Works report put each of them under the microscope by reviewing academic research and seeking feedback from HR practitioners to identify what works on the ground.

We found relatively little research on the impact of these initiatives on workforce diversity, but there are studies showing coaching and mentoring can be powerful tools for learning and development. On the other hand, research on how bias works in organisations leads us to have serious misgivings about sponsorship programmes. Far from encouraging diversity, they may impede it.

Sponsorship initiatives can be formal or informal. There’s a mentoring element to it but, more significantly, it paves the way for senior managers to actively advance their protégés’ careers – either directly by determining promotion decisions or indirectly by providing unique development opportunities.

The rub comes with how protégés are chosen and given preferential treatment. Senior managers will often select people who are made in their image. Once matched they will pull levers to advance their favourites' careers above those of others, meaning more deserving employees may miss out.

Biased selection processes and favouritism are two root causes of inequality, putting exclusive forms of social capital and professional networks at the heart of career development. Sponsoring to increase the diversity of talent pools will help a select few, but it also legitimises biased decision-making on promotions. For the majority of women, ethnic minority employees or those from other disadvantaged groups, the barriers are not removed but reinforced. So as a diversity strategy sponsorship is akin to fighting fire with fire.

Coaching and mentoring come with far less risk of perpetuating bias, but still need to be carefully managed. Our report stresses that they must be open to all and should be arranged on an opt-in basis to avoid this becoming a box-ticking exercise. In circumstances where targeted support is used it should be done with a sensitive eye towards how it will be perceived and the demand from the intended groups.

Despite these considerations there’s no doubt that giving everyone an opportunity to develop, and opening opportunities up as widely as possible, need to form a central part of any D&I strategy.

What is apparent from our wider research into diversity is that these strategies are rarely probed and tested enough by employers. We want to change this and encourage HR professionals to take a more evidence-based and critical approach.

Our previous research found little evidence that diversity alone affects bottom-line performance, but the moral and legal arguments are compelling. Employers need to take action and we hope our evidence-based recommendations help them take action that has the best chance of being effective.

Jonny Gifford is senior advisor for organisational behaviour and Mel Green is a research advisor at the CIPD