Mandell Crawley, head of private wealth investment at Morgan Stanley, began what is now his 26th year at the company through a work-study program his high school offered. As a young African American male, Crawley says, the organization’s level of emotional intelligence (EQ), warmth and inclusiveness played a “huge role” in his ability to thrive in an environment that didn’t look like him. He says that the support he received during the first seven years of his career still benefits him today.

Crawley’s story is an example of how early career development opportunities can position employees for long-term professional success. But, in reality, many people from underrepresented groups don’t receive the critical early career support that Crawley did.

Cultural awareness training, coupled with broader diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, offers leaders the tools they need to support their employees from the beginning of their career to wherever their professional development takes them.

The Facts

Employees from all walks of life deserve early career development opportunities and support. But minorities often can’t access these opportunities. For instance, a recent LeanIn report found that Black women are “much less likely” than their non-Black colleagues to interact with senior leaders at work. “This lack of access is mirrored in a lack of sponsorship: less than a quarter of Black women feel they have the sponsorship they need to advance their career,” the report says.

Hispanic women are another minority group whose development is often overlooked. According to a Catalyst report, in addition to lacking access to mentors, role models and sponsors, “Some Latinas also report the lack of access to networks as a difficulty [in the workplace], resulting in significant disadvantages such as being passed over for key assignments.”

As an immigrant and woman of color, AiLun Ku, president and chief executive officer of The Opportunity Network (OppNet), has experienced some of these challenges firsthand, she says, “My voice is often undermined, my tone policed or my accomplishments taken for granted.”

These are just a few examples of how employees from minority groups can be overlooked by leaders lacking the cultural awareness needed to support them.

What Is Cultural Awareness?

The National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC) defines cultural awareness as the “first and foundational element” of cultural competence, because without it, “it is virtually impossible to acquire the attitudes, skills, and knowledge that are essential to cultural competence.”

At the heart of cultural awareness is the ability to recognize and respond to cultural differences such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability and age. “[Cultural] differences can also go deeper, such as the way people like to give and receive feedback; how they like to meet, how they like to conduct themselves in meetings and how people prefer to show up in the workplace are [also] differences that are worthy of attention,” says Ed Beltran, CEO of Fierce Conversations.

Inclusive Leaders Are Essential Leaders

In “Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America,” authors David A. Thomas and John J. Gabarro write, “Racial minorities in predominantly white corporations face a number of challenges throughout their careers, but they are perhaps most vulnerable in the early career period.” Failure to develop “essential levels” of competence, credibility and confidence in the first stage of their careers can jeopardize minorities’ future advancement, they note.

Creating valuable early career development opportunities for minorities starts with assessing both your leadership and organizational culture, says Dr. Russell Robinson, a senior training professional at a government agency. “Leadership needs to know how to talent manage people of diverse backgrounds,” he notes. “Everyone should feel included and comfortable.” A culture that fosters innovation, creativity, trust and openness is critical in creating an inclusive culture where all employees can thrive. Of course, an inclusive culture doesn’t happen on its own. Leaders must “be intentional” about creating it, Robinson says.

Implicit bias assessments are one way to help leaders identify any gaps in their understanding (and acceptance) of different demographic groups. Training should also address common microaggressions and explain that, while they may seem small, their impact on minorities can be long-lasting.

For a truly inclusive environment, leaders cannot shy away from having difficult conversations with employees. For example, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to bring racial injustice to light, leaders should normalize conversations about race at work. Having these tough conversations early on in an employee’s career will create a sense of psychological safety and improve performance: A study by the Center for Talent Innovation (now known as Coqual) found that Black employees who feel like they cannot talk about racial bias at work are 13 times more disengaged than those who feel like they can talk about it. Beltran says having these tough conversations will help leaders not only build cultural awareness but establish “possible possibilities and options that didn’t exist before.”

The bottom line, Beltran says, is that leaders need to learn how to be authentic and empathic in order to support a diverse workforce.

Making Early Career Development Accessible

There are many ways organizations can make critical early career development opportunities available to employees from minority groups. For example, OppNet’s fellows program is an “intensive, six-year experience” that students are eligible to participate in beginning the summer after 10th grade, Ku says. The program is designed to develop students’ passions and skills to “persist through college” and help them launch their career of choice upon graduation. After completing the program, fellows are placed into paid internships, academic enrichment programs and/or leadership development opportunities.

“Internships are critical resume- and networking-building opportunities where students of color from historically underrepresented backgrounds get to apply their learning in real time,” says Ku. Cultural awareness training should prepare leaders to support and develop interns from diverse backgrounds. After all, Robinson says, if an intern has a bad experience and shares it with his or her network, recruitment and retention can quickly take a hit. He encourages leaders to give interns and entry-level employees “work that means something” aside from the occasional coffee run and mundane administrative tasks.

It’s important to remember that while people across cultures all have the “same basic needs,” the way these needs are met can look different, Ku says. “If we want to create an environment where people feel valued, then we need to stop and think about what those differences are and how to embrace them.”

In the end, culturally aware leaders are better equipped to support minorities in the workplace, ensuring that they have the tools and resources they need to drive business results — from the first day of their internship to their 26th year at the company.