Colin Kaepernick's Words Of Wisdom For The Workplace

Has America moved beyond our racial issues, as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton suggested in a recent interview in GQ magazine? Certainly, Colin Kaepernick doesn't think so. The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick has famously refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of what he deems are wrongdoings against African Americans and minorities.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in a much-publicized interview after a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26th. He later added, "This country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it's not happening for all right now."

Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick are millennials. Both are millennials of color. Yet, these two athletes have very different views of race relations in America. These different views are a reflection of the broader conversation we continue to have: are we truly living in a post-racial society. Center for Talent Innovation's research on people of color in the workplace finds that racial inequality is very much alive and well in our workplaces. And, while some millennials may believe we are living in a post-racial society, our research uncovers a different story.

Millennials, the demographic cohort born between 1982 and 1994, represent a huge tranche of talent in the pipelines of our organizations: Representing more than one-quarter of the nation's population and one-third of the U.S. workforce, millennials outnumber both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers by a significant margin. They are also the most diverse generation to date: over 44 percent of US millennials identify themselves on the Census with an ethnic or racial group other than non-Hispanic white.

Yet, according to recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation, millennials of color are more likely than their white counterparts to face challenges that prevent their advancement. Misunderstood Millennial Talent: The Other Ninety-One Percent finds that a mere six percent of black, nine percent of Hispanic, and 13 percent of Asian millennials feel they experience rewarding relationships and intellectual growth and challenge at work, compared to 25 percent of their white counterparts.

Additionally, they lack sponsorship or leadership backing in the workplace. Previous CTI research finds that employees of color (including millennials) are less likely than their white counterparts to obtain sponsorship: only nine percent of African-Americans, eight percent of Asians, and five percent of Hispanics have a sponsor, compared to 13 percent of Caucasians.

Their lack of sponsorship isn't a result of inept credentials or ability. Millennials of color aren't perceived as "leadership material" by those with the clout to make them leaders - mostly straight, white men. To attract sponsors and the senior-level advocacy that promotion to top-tier roles requires, professionals of color need to be more than highly motivated star performers: they need to look, sound, and act the part of a leader. They need to exude "executive presence (EP)."

The problem is that millennials of color are at an immediate disadvantage in "cracking the code" of EP because that code is based on Caucasian norms of leadership traits and behaviors. Embodying those norms exacts a price to cultural identity that threatens to undermine the authenticity of millennials of color. Acquiring executive presence is a tightrope act where inherent difference is both a source of distinction and an impediment to fitting in.

EY understands the challenges that professionals of color face when trying to look and sound like a leader. As a result, EY created "Unplugged" to tackle this issue. The core of the program is the exchange of candid--and honest--questions, and experiences between the approximately 300 new Black and Latino entry level staff and Black and Latino top performers, partners, principals and mentors. "They talk about all those unwritten rules that normally don't get talked about, whether it's around the way you dress, the way you speak, how to build relationships, what you can and can't ask, and how to ask those questions," says Diana Solash, a Director with EY's Americas Inclusiveness Center of Excellence. Another crucial element of "Unplugged" is the development of supportive relationships. "Our message is: Don't give up," says Ken Bouyer, EY's Americas Director of Inclusiveness Recruiting. "We want to give people the power to stand back up when they've been knocked down, and build a network of people to call when they're stuck."

By their demographic heft alone, millennials of color are a force to be reckoned with as they are the bench strength for the next generation of leaders. As such, companies cannot afford to isolate this talent cohort. However, there's good news: there are companies, like EY, that understand the importance of leveraging their millennial talent and have created replicable programs to aid other organizations in better retaining and accelerating this population.