Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I shared two things you can change in your job announcements in an effort to adopt more inclusive and equitable hiring practices. Today, I want to share a very real example of something that I did to help a colleague advance within my organization when I was a “gatekeeper.”

You may know that I used to work at a place-based public health consultancy and software firm called Counter Tools. I started as a Project Director and eventually became the Executive Director. At some point in between those two roles, a Project Director (we’ll call her Jill), with a very heavy client load, resigned. Luckily, the Project Assistant who supported that Project Director (we’ll call her Nancy) was familiar with the clients and their goals and was able to fill the role of Interim Project Director while the search for a permanent replacement for Jill was underway.

Here’s what happened: Nancy CRUSHED it. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who was as attentive to detail as Nancy. Same goes for her willingness to learn and desire to constantly improve. And her clients loved her. We should have known: even before Jill left, one client insisted that Nancy be written into the contract as their Project Assistant for fear that she’d be reassigned.

But at Counter Tools, all Project Directors were required to have Master’s degree, preferably in public health or public policy, or be actively enrolled in a program and working toward an advanced degree.

Nancy’s Bachelor’s was in public health, but she didn’t have a Master’s and was not enrolled in a program, though she was considering it. She hadn’t been out of undergrad for all that long and was working on saving up money.

So when Jill’s Master’s-holding replacement was hired, Nancy became a Project Assistant once again.

When I became Executive Director, the time came to hire another Project Director. I remember thinking that it was really too bad that Nancy didn’t have an advanced degree, because we already knew she would thrive as a Project Director. But rules are rules, and clients loved that all Project Directors had a baseline education of a Master’s.

But then I thought about the client that requested Nancy be written into their contract. Do they really care that their Project Director has a Master’s? Or do they care that their Project Director listens to them, has an understanding of their goals and policy landscape, has ideas on what to do to achieve those goals, and is open to figuring things out if something isn’t clear-cut? Do they care that their Project Director took all of the necessary coursework to have some extra letters after their name, or do they care that their Project Director is kind, focused, and organized?

I realized that even though the rule was that Project Directors had to have Master’s degrees, I was the gatekeeper. It was in my power to change the rules—or at least make exceptions. Which is exactly what I did. I promoted Nancy to Project Director. The only thing I regretted was not doing it sooner.

Are you a gatekeeper? For professional advancement, for access to opportunity, for something else? Think about how you can remove policies that perpetuate disparities among your staff (whether they’re racial, socioeconomic, gendered, etc.) and put policies into place that allows your team to advance because they’re good at what they do—or are willing to learn how to be good at what they do.

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