Unlocking Potential: Empowering Low-Wage Workers for Success in Inclusive Workplaces

Kathryn Henderson
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The May issue of Harvard Business Review included a timely spotlight series on “How to Hang on to Your Frontline Workers.” Given YW Boston’s recent research to understand the experiences and needs of hourly workers of color of with marginalized gender identities, we were especially interested to read “The High Cost of Neglecting Low-Wage Workers” by Joseph Fuller and Manjari Raman, whose own research focuses on answering the question, “What can U.S. employers do to improve the prospects of their lowest-paid workers while simultaneously advancing their own competitiveness?”  

The authors made a compelling business case for supporting low-wage workers – who are often also frontline and hourly wage workers – by focusing on their upward mobility. Disproportionately, these roles are held by people of color, women, and other marginalized gender identities. During the interviews and focus groups we conducted as part of our research, workers expressed a desire for clear opportunities for growth as well as greater equity and inclusion in their workplaces.  

A theme that emerged in both Fuller and Raman’s research and YW Boston’s research is that too often, employers are leaving it to frontline workers to figure out how to advance their careers and initiate discussions about salaries and promotions. Less than 10% of participants in our research strongly agreed with the statement, “My workplace invests in my professional growth so I qualify for new opportunities/higher paying jobs.” One participant even described a high level of opacity: “[My employer] will tell you there’s a lot of chance, [and] opportunities, but I can’t see [it],” she said. “It’s not structured, and they didn’t work on that ladder to make it easy … You can’t see that structure so I have to double think and figure out where I have to be within [the] upcoming five years.” As Fuller and Manjari point out, many organizations with policies for career progression are not following through on them when it comes to their low-wage workers.  

The hourly workers of color with marginalized gender identities in our study also emphasized a need for safety and inclusion, which, when present, led them to feel valued. Unfortunately, less than 50% of study participants agreed with the statement, “My workplace communicates the value of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to staff.” If there are DEI strategies or commitments, they don’t seem to be visible or clear to these workers.  

What is striking from Fuller and Manjari’s research and our conversations with workers is the frequency with which organizational policies intended to create inclusive workplaces and pipelines for development fail to reach low-wage and hourly wage workers. For employers who want to improve pathways to professional growth, this is a good place to start; They can bring a critical eye to how their current promotion, learning and development, and DEI practices are being implemented to see if they are reaching and equitably impacting low-wage and hourly workers.  

For additional recommendations, you can access our report, Front & Center: Workplace Inclusion Reflections and Recommendations from Hourly Workers of Color of Marginalized Gender Identities in Greater Boston. Ready to take action? Contact Sheera Bornstein to learn how YW Boston can support your DEI efforts.