12/20/2017 14:02 EST | Updated 12/20/2017 14:40 EST

People Of Colour Aren't Getting The Support We Need To Thrive At Work

I censored my behaviour based on what I knew would help me and the advice I received from leaders about how to get ahead.

When I was in my early 30's and working in a fancy corporate job on Bay Street, I had all the markers of traditional success. Still, something felt off. The reality was, I couldn't be my authentic self at work.

As a brown, Sikh, Punjabi woman, my truths — that I attended bhangra jams and Soca fetes and worshipped at a Sikh gurdwara, for example — were not topics I felt comfortable discussing in workplace boardrooms, which were dominated by talk of sports, beer and cottage excursions.

I censored my behaviour based on what I knew would help me and the advice I received from leaders about how to get ahead. This advice essentially encouraged me to conform in how I communicated, dressed, behaved and connected with others — and when I did conform, I was rewarded.

Exhausted from having to be someone I wasn't all day long, I eventually left to start my own business.

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Essentially, the way that leadership supported me in my corporate career was to teach me how to be more like them — a phenomenon I see daily in the work I do now with my leadership and diversity consulting practice. I also saw it in my research for Sponsor Effect: Canada, a new study I co-authored with the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), which examines how people of colour, women and Indigenous peoples are being supported in Canadian workplaces.

In short, my experience isn't unique, and more of us are now coming forward with similar stories. Former Bay Street lawyer Hadiya Roderique recently spoke up about her experiences with being "othered" and encouraged to conform in her job, which has sparked many conversations about what corporate workplaces need to do better. Thanks to Sponsor Effect: Canada, we finally have some Canada-specific data that can help us make a case for dramatically changing how we approach diversity in our country.

People of colour don't lack ambition and drive, but despite this, we're guided and supported in vastly different ways than our white counterparts.

While there are many interesting findings in the study, two stand out to me. One: people of colour and Indigenous Canadians are more likely to report that they aspire to hold "top jobs" in their professions than white people are. Two: when it comes to being supported by senior colleagues, white people are more likely to receive meaningful advocacy, while people of colour and Indigenous people are more likely to receive advice that focuses on how they can "fix" the way they are perceived, in areas like "appearance/grooming," "how to achieve gravitas" and "how to inspire others."

When I look at these findings, I see my own story reflected back at me, as well as the stories of thousands of people of colour I have spoken to in my consulting work and in doing research for my new book, The Authenticity Principle. The story is this: people of colour don't lack ambition and drive, but despite this, we're guided and supported in vastly different ways than our white counterparts. For us, guidance is focused on the ways in which we need to change ourselves to "fit in" — and ultimately, the message is "act white."

The problem is that this kind of advice isn't very effective in helping people get ahead. But what does move people up the career ladder, according to CTI's research, is meaningful advocacy — and more specifically, "sponsorship."

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CTI defines "sponsorship" as "a powerful advocacy-based relationship that occurs when a senior colleague, or 'sponsor,' does at a minimum three things for their 'protégé': believes in their leadership potential and goes out on a limb for them, advocates for their next promotion, and provides cover when they make a mistake." Strikingly, the meaningful advocacy that white people in our study are more likely to receive looks, to me, a lot like the support offered by sponsors.

So, what can Canadian workplaces do to repair this disconnect and better support people of colour? In my view, there are a few key things that need to happen to shift from diversity and inclusion talk to action:

  • Acknowledge that bias exists
  • Look at how your employees are being supported
  • Learn about sponsorship, and focus on making it available to professionals across differences, including ethnoculture and race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and more
  • Look carefully at how you are measuring talent. Where are you asking people to fit in at the expense of who they really are?
  • Encourage authenticity in others by revealing your own differences, especially if you are a leader

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Until this happens, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, and women — and especially women of colour and Indigenous women — will continue asking themselves: am I being asked to give up too much of myself to get ahead? Am I receiving the same support as my white peers? And most importantly — will I stay in my job? Because often the cost of conformity is just too high.

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