By Claire O’Brien
The concept of professional social capital is receiving attention in the workplace as organizations increasingly recognize its contribution to building more than just a thriving community. Specifically, social capital can impact job performance, job satisfaction and even innovation.
However, social capital is as important to the individual as it is to the organization. According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Americans with close workplace friends are more likely to be satisfied at work, less stressed and less likely to experience anxiety and loneliness.
This is true for all employees, but employees of color can have a different experience with social capital. Recently, Jobs for the Future (JFF) and University of Phoenix (UOPX) collaborated in exploring the concept of social capital through the lens of employees of color to understand where we’ve been and where we need to go.
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Social capital is a somewhat technical term for a relatively familiar concept: If you’ve bonded with co-workers over lunch, asked for career advice from more established colleagues, or received leads on job openings from friends, family and others in your network, then you’ve invested in, and benefited from, your own social capital.
Think back over your job history. It’s likely the jobs where you connected with your co-workers, felt supported by your manager and were optimistic about your career trajectory were where you thrived the most.
Research has shown that most jobs are found through professional social capital, which many Black Americans and other minorities have historically lacked. However, as organizations become more diverse, employees of color face unique challenges in building social capital due to systemic biases and discrimination. As a result, there is a growing recognition that companies must take action to support their employees of color in building social capital in the workplace.
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JFF, a national nonprofit dedicated to equal opportunity for economic advancement in the American workforce, collaborated with UOPX in creating a framework designed to help minority workers accrue professional social capital.
The JFF framework outlines five elements of the most innovative social capital strategies. They are:
Building a framework is one thing. Putting it into action is another. Here are five tangible ways employers can support employees of color in building workplace social capital, based on the JFF framework.
Many workers may not realize the extent of their personal network nor be prepared to take advantage of it. This is especially relevant for workers of color as forms of social capital in minority communities are often overlooked.
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Exercises such as self-assessments and network mapping can help workers think broadly and creatively about what resources they can access through their current relationships. For example, a family member who works at a bank can provide insight into what it’s like to work for a financial institution and pass along contact information to managers with job openings.
New employees should be thoughtfully introduced to co-workers, made aware of their new organization’s cultural norms and be informed about what their new positions require. They should also be allowed to explore their career and learning goals.
According to Indeed.com, career mapping, or the collaboration between managers and employees in creating a plan that supports both the company’s and the employee’s goals, contributes directly to employee retention, productivity and profitability.
As employees of color are less likely than their white colleagues to have access to traditional forms of social capital, it is critical that supervisors openly share information about advancement opportunities within their organizations. Organizations that have been successful at this have created online hubs that include staff career progression opportunities, timelines, the necessary skills and ways to upskill (or reskill) based on worker goals and interests.
Alumni engagement is often underused as a method of strengthening an organization’s networking program, particularly regarding minority employees. But engaging with employees of color who have moved on to different workplaces offers the opportunity to invest in the long-term social capital of current and former employees.
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To facilitate this opportunity, organizations might create a database current employees can use to build upon and expand their networks. Additionally, companies can stay in touch with past employees via newsletters, notices of job openings and invitations to casual meetings and networking sessions.
When companies collaborate with organizations that have strong relationships with learners and workers of color, workplaces build trust, raise awareness and provide more equitable access to professional opportunities while recruiting and retaining a more diverse workforce.
Potential partners might include historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), organizations like UOPX that are committed to DEIB efforts (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging), nonprofits such as the OneTen coalition or platforms such as Mentor Spaces.
Despite progress, American workplaces continue to reflect instances of discrimination and exclusivity. According to a report by AEI titled “The Social Workplace: Social Capital, Human Dignity, and Work in America,” 10% of workers have heard a sexist joke and 8% have heard a racist joke “in the past week.” Unsurprisingly, workers exposed to racist and sexist comments are less satisfied in their jobs. Yet managers, especially in predominantly white organizations, may not understand the impact of microaggressions on minority workers’ well-being and career outcomes.
Kimberly M. Underwood, PhD, university research chair of the Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Research at UOPX, explains, “Many companies focus strategies around one or two elements of professional social capital development, such as mentoring or training. However, developing a comprehensive plan requires companies proactively seek to understand the needs of employees of color through the voices of this population. This is sorely missing from the equation of professional social capital development.”
But this change may well be underway as social capital becomes increasingly discussed — and examined — in the public sphere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claire O’Brien has led copywriting teams for Hilton Worldwide Corporate’s creative studio and advertising agencies specializing in the real estate, hospitality, education and travel industries. In 2020, she founded More Better Words, a boutique copywriting agency that taps into her global connections. She lives in Costa Rica with her husband and six rescue dogs.
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