SHRM All Things Work

Monne Williams on Improving Experiences and Outcomes for Front-Line Workers

Episode Summary

Upward mobility for front-line employees is critical for growing economies and creating inclusive, resilient workforces. But front-line employees face many obstacles to advancing in their careers. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee speaks with Monne Williams, a partner at McKinsey & Co., about the plight of front-line workers and solutions to create better experiences and outcomes for them.

Episode Notes

Upward mobility for front-line employees is critical for growing economies and creating inclusive, resilient workforces. But front-line employees face many obstacles to advancing in their careers. In this episode of All Things Work, host Tony Lee speaks with Monne Williams, a partner at McKinsey & Co., about the plight of front-line workers and solutions to create better experiences and outcomes for them. 

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This episode of All Things Work is sponsored by ADP.

Episode transcript

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why ADP uses data-driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. ADP always designing for HR talent, time benefits, payroll, and people.

Tony Lee: Welcome to All Things Work, a podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, head of content here at SHRM. Thank you for joining us. All Things Work is an audio adventure where we talk with thought leaders and tastemakers to bring you an insider's perspective on all things work. Today we're discussing the plight of frontline workers. About 112 million people or 70% of the US working population hold frontline jobs that range from waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms to stocking retail and grocery shelves, driving delivery trucks and sorting packages in warehouses. They are disproportionately women, people of color and age 50 or older, and they typically work long or not enough hours. More than one third live in low-income families. And the likelihood that their careers will progress beyond their current positions is not high. Yet, research shows that upward mobility for frontline employees is a critical building block of a growing economy and an inclusive and resilient workforce. Joining us today to talk about this issue is Monne Williams. Monne is a partner at McKinsey and Company in Atlanta, and co-author of a recently released report Race in the Workplace, the Frontline Experience. Monne, welcome to All Things Work.

Monne Williams: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Tony Lee: Yeah, we're excited to have you. So let's start with the report. The McKenzie report found that seven in 10 black and Hispanic employees in the US are frontline workers, and that while all workers deal with unique challenges when trying to advance their careers, these workers also have to overcome a range of additional issues including racism just to succeed in the workplace. Why do you think that is?

Monne Williams: There are a few factors that we looked at in the course of this research. The first is that different employee groups are having very different inclusion experiences in the workplace. So when we look at things like the likelihood that you feel allyship and sponsorship support at work, the likelihood that you feel like you have the support and resources that you need to advance and that you'll be listened to are all less likely to be true when we look at black and Hispanic workers, the second thing that we saw is that people are really differentially allocated to certain roles. And so we tend to see that the types of frontline positions that Hispanic workers are in, and black workers are in, are lower paying and often don't have the same types of mobility opportunities or advancement opportunities as some of the other workers in our sample set experienced.

And lastly, we also see that while those overall opportunities to be able to move up and advance in your career are lower for some of the black and Hispanic workers, they also have some of the highest degrees of ambition and wanting to be promoted. And so that gap between wanting to be promoted but really not feeling like you have the opportunities and experiences to do so is much more prevalent for that group of workers.

Tony Lee: And I would imagine the motivation to be promoted is high given the pay issues. I mean, you also found that black frontline workers earned about 25% less than their white counterparts and Latino frontline workers earn 22% less. So what's causing that? I mean is it the employee's education level? Is it their experience level?

Monne Williams: Well, most frontline workers do not have a college degree, and that's what the four year bachelor's degree, and that's what we really focused on in the context of this research, those workers that don't have degrees. So even when you account for not having education, frontline workers who happen to be Latino or black are still having worse outcomes. And I think at least part of that deals with one of the things that we see that is required for further advancement, which is interpersonal skills. So the likelihood that you need interpersonal skills for those next level promotions that many frontline workers are going after is high. And for a variety of different reasons, we don't see frontline workers of color being able to get those promotions as frequently. And one of the reasons is that we know from other academic research that lots of the stereotypes and perceptions around professionalism and what we might call interpersonal skills are often devalued or not appreciated or observed in those workers of color as much. And so they're not seen as eligible for some of those promotions.

Tony Lee: Yeah, I want to come back to that, but first I'm curious, so what about experience levels? I mean, does a black or Latino frontline worker who has 20 or 30 years of experience, do they work out of the perceptions? Do they work out of the issues of racism when it comes to pay and promotion or does that just never happen?

Monne Williams: We didn't look at the difference between experience, years of experience explicitly, but we do see that even in the types of jobs and industries where frontline workers of color, say Latino workers specifically, are overrepresented, even at the start, as soon as we start looking at those next job promotion opportunities where interpersonal skills become more required, we start to see the drop off in representation. And so it's pretty quick and it doesn't seem like the experience of folks is really able to counteract the impact that we see there with the interpersonal skills gap.

Tony Lee: Yeah, very disappointing. So when you're talking about interpersonal skills, are you talking typically about frontline workers who are in positions where they are interacting with clients and customers? Or is it as much working with colleagues and their boss?

Monne Williams: I think it's both. So it's certainly being able to deal with customer resolution issues when someone has a concern, perhaps their order was incorrect or they didn't like something that they received. But it's also that managing the types of conflicts or conversations that managers and supervisors need to have with the employees that report to them, it encapsulates both sets of those skills.

Tony Lee: Yeah. Is there something more involved? I mean, when you look at promotional opportunities for high performing frontline workers, I mean, let's say there's a frontline worker who does have decent interpersonal skills, they still don't seem to be getting the promotional opportunities, the money that their white counterparts do. So what else is involved here?

Monne Williams: Well, we didn't look at that specifically in the research, but I think that there are a few things involved there. When we look overall at jobs options, there are some jobs that we categorize for the purposes of this research as origin jobs. Many of us enter the workforce in those types of frontline positions. And those positions might be something like working in a grocery store, stocking shelves, it might be being able to provide customer service support to someone, cleaning facilities, that sort of thing. And those jobs are, while important, don't necessarily have the same access to opportunities as other frontline jobs. And we tend to see that for workers of color, there are more congregated in those initial jobs where it's harder to have paths to opportunities out of that. So some of this is the initial starting point where a lot of workers are entering the workforce. It's harder to get out of some of those jobs than others. Better said, all frontline jobs are not created equal.

Tony Lee: Yeah, no, absolutely. And we have seen more instances, especially coming out of the pandemic and with huge talent shortages of companies saying we're going to take college degree required out of our job description so that we are considering people who have not gotten their degree, but it doesn't seem to be making that big a difference. I mean, do you have any thoughts there?

Monne Williams: I think it will likely make a difference. I think we haven't seen that happening as long as we would like to see, to see the shifts and differences there. It's a fairly new practice for a lot of organizations to relax degree requirements or other credentials that we used to see as required for a particular role. And now that lots of organizations are taking more of this skill-based view versus the credential based view, it's opening up that job market to a lot of new employees that wouldn't have been previously considered for those roles.

Tony Lee: Yeah, that's great to hear. Another important ingredient for a lot of frontline workers is to have a boss or some other senior manager who basically looks out for them, sponsors them, mentors them. Do you think that plays an important role in the advancement of these folks?

Monne Williams: I think it does. And if we take black employees as one example, about 50% of black employees report having at least one mentor, but only 38% of those people say that they have one sponsor. And we know that sponsors are highly correlated with access to new opportunities to develop your skills, but also to advance into new roles. And so that gap between getting advice and guidance versus having the people who are pulling you by the hand and helping you get set up in new roles and find new opportunities continues to be a challenge for black workers and other workers of color.

Tony Lee: So you see a sponsor as someone who can actually have a direct impact on helping that person get a promotion as opposed to a mentor who just gives advice?

Monne Williams: Yes. And I think it could be a promotion, but it could also be sometimes smaller opportunities for advancement as well. So for example, if there's an opportunity to work on a particular project at a store or to work in a particular shift where you might have access to more of the senior people in your organization, that might increase the likelihood that you have access to promotions and other opportunities. But someone has to help show you what those options are and really get you connected to those different shift options or the programs that might exist, that kind of thing. We hear from lots of workers that the types of programs that corporate workers often benefit from in terms of DE&I programs like mentoring sponsorship often don't actually make it to the frontline. And so sponsors play a really important role in connecting people to those opportunities as well.

Tony Lee: So you mentioned DE&I. A lot of companies have invested very significantly in DE&I training, especially since the George Floyd murder, yet a lot of frontline workers of color say they're not seeing any evidence of an improved workplace. So what's the disconnect, do you think?

Monne Williams: I think part of it is this initial view on the policies and programs and practices that are designed to address DE&I. Concerns are often designed for headquarters or corporate workers, and they're not necessarily designed in a way for frontline workers to be able to take advantage of them or they're not available at all. And so if we take an example like tuition reimbursement, there's a really big cash outlay for somebody who might decide to invest in a credential or a degree, and their company might be generous enough to offer that benefit, but if they don't have that initial capital outlay to be able to pay for that educational opportunity, even though the policy exists, they can't equitably take advantage of it. And so there are lots of opportunities to improve the likelihood that frontline workers who are often some of our lowest paid workers could take advantage of some of those policies and programs in the same way that their corporate colleagues can.

Tony Lee: Yeah, that's a great example. We have seen some examples of companies that are incentivizing managers, people managers, maybe first line managers to actually try and reach out and help folks who have traditionally not gotten that help. Do you see an incentivizing system, whether it's an additional bonus or a better performance review as a good way to get managers to take this more seriously? Or are incentives not really appropriate here?

Monne Williams: I think incentives are appropriate, and we are starting to see organizations who are experimenting with that, even baking that into the expectations for the role that you'll spend a certain amount of time recruiting and hiring new colleagues, for example, on your team, or that you'll really spend a certain amount of time focusing on those inclusive practices that people want to see in terms of their work experience and also providing that mentoring and sponsorship support. And so it might mean that some people get spot bonuses or awards for being able to demonstrate that they do that, but it also could just be an expectation of the role. And so if you're not actually hitting that mark, you wouldn't be able to get the highest rating, for example, even if you were doing well in other dimensions of your role.

Tony Lee: Yeah, no, that makes sense. All right. So let's try and get a little practical here. Let's say an HR professional is listening to this and saying, "I want to do more. I'm not exactly sure what to do." What steps would you suggest that an employer take to better support their frontline workers?

Monne Williams: I think the first one is extending benefits that already exist to frontline workers. So the tuition reimbursement example we were talking about earlier, things like childcare access to other professional development opportunities. And we know that, for example, hourly frontline workers are significantly less likely to believe that those policies and programs are effective. So if we look at hourly frontline workers, just under 60% of them believe that those policies are effective versus over 80% of the most senior people and organizations. So there's a pretty big disconnect even in perceived effectiveness.

The other issue is being able to take away some of the fear or stigma that people have in using some of those policies. Hourly frontline workers are the most likely to say that they fear that they might be jeopardizing their job if they take advantage of some of those policies. So making them available equally and ideally equitably. And then also taking away some of the fear that people may have on using those. So for example, maybe they might be given a schedule that's less accommodating or benefits may be taken away or maybe hours may be taken away. How do you make sure that folks don't feel that fear so they can take advantage of some of those programs as well?

Tony Lee: Communication becomes really critical there. And it's ironic because we've seen research and we've reported on that frontline workers, when they see their schedule become less flexible or hours taken away, they immediately start looking for another job, which isn't the intention of their employer. They don't want them to leave, but they don't communicate very well. I mean, how do you rectify that?

Monne Williams: I think communicating in ways that make sense for the group of people that you're trying to reach. So if you're talking about frontline employees who don't have access to a company device, maybe they don't spend time on a company computer or have a cell phone, how do you make those announcements more visible? Is it actual physical posters in a working place? Is it flyers that are in a place like an eating area or cafeteria where folks are spending time? But how do you make those decisions much more visible and in a medium and in a way where people will actually see the information versus doing it in a way where more traditional corporate employees may consume information, but there's a real mismatch there in how people are spending their time during the day and what they might see.

Tony Lee: And we kind of come full circle back to the frontline manager who kind of the key to communicating and making it clear that, "Look, you're not going to get in trouble if you tell me that this schedule doesn't work for you." And scheduling flexibility I noticed pops up in your research as an important attribute that frontline workers are looking for. What kind of flexibility do you think would really be effective for employers to offer?

Monne Williams: Well, we are starting to see some organizations who are really interested in retaining their employees really experiment with different scheduling. So for example, are you thinking about the working parents that you may have and do you offer something that really fits well in terms of a shift with school hours so that people have more flexibility to be able to work and also not worry about being able to pick up or drop off children for school in a different way? I think it's also letting people have the flexibility to move around to different roles. And so for some people that's advancement and wanting to continue to move up. For other people, that might be, maybe you start out in one department, but you want the flexibility to be able to move around and learn other things and work in other departments as well. But trying to provide lots of different opportunities for employees and first and foremost, really listening to them and what they want and what they need to be effective and what they need to develop and grow so that you can be more attuned to the needs that they have and try to provide the solutions that'll be best fit for your employees.

Tony Lee: We've also seen examples of companies offering English as a second language course, and in fact, even hiring bilingual or multilingual managers to make frontline workers feel more comfortable. Do you see that as an effective tool?

Monne Williams: I think it's a great tool. I heard a really great nuance of this implementation recently that I'd love to share with you. One organization was talking about offering ESL courses, which they knew was really important given the population of workers that they had, particularly in a couple cities. And they think that the thing that was most effective was really having those ESL courses be targeted to the work environment. And so people were learning the vocabulary of the industry that they were working in. They were very much learning how to think about all of the business terms that were related to the work that they were doing. So it really was contextualizing what they were asked to be included in the curriculum and not just more general English language courses that weren't as immediately applicable to their job context.

Tony Lee: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. Conjugating verbs is not fun, but learning the terms you're going to use every day make perfect sense. Right.

Monne Williams: Exactly. Especially the nuances of those and when would you say one variation of a word versus another and why that matters and really being able to contextualize how people interpret those things so differently.

Tony Lee: Yeah. I want to ask you about empathy. For this to work, it feels like senior company leadership has to get behind the idea of treating frontline workers a little differently. Is it empathy? Is it just being smart corporate citizens? What's the role that senior company leaders should be playing?

Monne Williams: I think it's both. I think it's having an appreciation for the differential experiences that many frontline workers are having. So if we go back to this first idea of inclusion and the different types of experiences we have, we know regardless of race, hourly frontline workers have the worst experience of inclusion across the board compared to all employees in our sample set.

And so again, regardless of race, those are the folks having the worst experience, and that's where they have the tightest variation of experience as well. And so how do you make sure you have mechanisms to really hear employee feedback and be able to act on those concerns so that you can surface things like the tuition reimbursement issue? You may think that's a really great policy, but if you designed it for people who have way higher incomes, it's going to be harder for folks who are equally interested in being able to better their careers and have access to those things to be able to take advantage of it. So I think really taking that empathy piece, and I'm trying to apply it to all of the different ways that you can get employee feedback to try to make a more inclusive work environment. Which people want. People want to be able to work and do a good job and really create real value for their respective organizations. And as a leader, finding ways to do that for all of your employees is really important and certainly starts with empathy.

Tony Lee: Yeah, certainly does. Well, that's going to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A big thank you to Monne Williams for sharing her insights into the situation phase by many of the nation's frontline workers. Before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work whenever you listen to your podcast, and also listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at Thanks for listening and we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.

Speaker 1: Business success requires thinking beyond today. That's why ADP uses data driven insights to design HR solutions to help your business have more success tomorrow. ADP always designing for HR talent, time benefits, payroll, and people.