Developing the Social Capital of a Diverse Workforce:


by Keith Hechtel, DBA, Curbell Plastics, Inc.
Article four in the DEI+B series by the IAPD Diversity Equity and Inclusion Task Force

hen plastics professionals are encouraged to achieve excellence through well-designed career development plans, IAPD member companies benefit from increased productivity, higher employee job satisfaction, reduced turnover and enhanced financial results. Additionally, plastics organizations that focus on the professional development of their employees tend to have more effective succession planning.

When designing career progression plans for employees, it is important to consider two aspects of professional development: building an individual’s human capital and building their social capital. Human capital is defined as a person’s knowledge, skills and experiences that can be employed to achieve productive work. Examples of human capital development include product training, computer skills training, leadership skills development and sales training. However, human capital development by itself is insufficient to prepare a person for career advancement. Effective career progression plans must also consider social capital development, which focuses on building an employee’s professional network.

Social capital is defined as the power that resides in the relationships between people that can be used to get work accomplished. Having an effective network benefits the careers of plastics professionals in a number of ways including:

  • Providing access to rich and unique information such as market trends and new sales opportunities.
  • Obtaining favorable pricing and lead times from suppliers.
  • Obtaining business intelligence that provides competitive advantage.
  • Learning about opportunities for career advancement that can result in promotions and increased compensation.

Social capital is particularly important for individuals in sales and managerial roles who frequently interact with people across functional areas of a business and with people outside of their organizations including customers and suppliers. Some examples of leveraging social capital to accomplish work in the performance plastics industry include:

  • A sales manager at a plastic sheet manufacturer calling a contact in distribution to identify possible job candidates to fill an open sales position.
  • A plastics distribution branch manager calling a contact at a supplier to ask for an expedited shipping date.
  • A plastic distribution salesperson calling a contact at a machine shop to ask them to fabricate a prototype for an important customer with a short lead time and discounted pricing.
  • A distribution purchasing manager asking the sales manager at a plastic sheet extruder to facilitate the distributor becoming a channel to market for another division of the company that extrudes a different polymer.
group of well dressed coworkers smiling and eating pizza together around a table
Not surprisingly, individuals with high levels of both human capital (knowledge, skills and experiences) and social capital (valuable business relationships that can be employed to get work accomplished) tend to quickly advance in organizations and have successful careers.

Scholarly research shows that people of diverse backgrounds including women and minorities may face obstacles to building social capital including barriers to building professional relationships with influential decision makers1. Lack of social capital can limit career growth for these individuals, which is detrimental to both the people who experience slow career growth and the organizations who fail to develop the potential of their entire pool of internal talent. The purpose of this article is to provide some suggestions for building the social capital of plastics professionals with diverse backgrounds and demographics.

The ideal professional network
The ideal professional network can be characterized as having a mix of both close and more distant relationships both inside of and external to a person’s organization. Close relationships provide access to richer business information and more significant favors. More distant relationships provide access to unique information, which may not be available to people in the same close network who tend to interact with each other and therefore have a similar pool of knowledge. The ideal network must also be large and include individuals who have the position and influence to facilitate getting work accomplished1.
Collaborative work assignments and stretch assignments

One of the most effective ways to build the professional networks of diverse employees is by encouraging individuals with different backgrounds and demographics to do meaningful work together. When people collaborate to accomplish work objectives, characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation become irrelevant as they develop mutual respect and a shared sense of accomplishment. Examples of network-building work assignments in the performance plastics industry include:

  • People from finance and operations working together to implement a new inventory management system.
  • Individuals from sales and operations working with an important customer to solve an ongoing quality issue.
  • A team from marketing, engineering and manufacturing collaborating to commercialize a new plastic material or penetrate a new market.

Stretch assignments involve work outside of an employee’s normal job responsibilities. These assignments can be especially effective at building the professional networks of diverse employees when the project involves interacting with senior managers in the organization. Examples of stretch assignments in the plastics industry include working on a cross-functional team to achieve a new quality certification or collaborating with the IT department to evaluate and select a new customer relationship management (CRM) software vendor.

laptop with futuristic 3D webs displaying social connect ions
Managers wishing to build the networks of diverse employees can serve as advocates, nominating their direct reports for meaningful collaborative work assignments and stretch assignments. These assignments can involve an employee interacting with others virtually or via in-person meetings; however, in-person meetings tend to be more effective for building professional networks.

Physically locating the employee close to people in the organization with influence and valuable resources during the assignment can provide an even richer opportunity for network development since people who are in close proximity to each other tend to interact more frequently.

Mentoring and career coaching from senior managers
Senior managers in the plastics industry will often invest their time developing rising stars in their organizations. Activities such as monthly one-on-one discussions, drinks after work, or invitations to important meetings outside of an employee’s normal job function are effective tools for mentoring internal talent.

White male managers may more easily relate to people who look like younger versions of themselves and therefore inadvertently provide disproportionate career guidance to these individuals. Male executives may also hesitate to develop the careers of women via meetings outside of the office due to concerns about perceptions of impropriety1. Lack of executive attention can be a subtle impediment to the career development of women and minorities.

Executives who wish to develop diverse employees can make a conscious choice to divide their time equally among talented individuals with high potential, without regard to their ethnicity, age, race, sex or sexual orientation. Managers who are concerned with issues of perceived impropriety if they were to meet with female subordinates outside of the workplace can choose to substitute after-work drinks for in-office coffee chats and still achieve the same level of sponsorship and development for their high potential female employees.

Participating in professional events
Conferences, vendor trainings and customer open houses can be effective venues for developing networks. IAPD’s Women in Plastics events provide a noteworthy example of effective professional meetings that provide both job skills training (human capital development) and opportunities for networking (social capital development). Society of Plastics Engineers meetings and plastic manufacturers’ training events are also great opportunities for technical training and professional networking. Managers wishing to develop the social capital of diverse employees can encourage them to attend these types of meetings.
Removing barriers to social interaction
Social interaction with colleagues outside of work is a traditional method for building professional relationships. Typical networking activities in the performance plastics industry include attending business dinners, playing golf and attending sporting events.
well dressed professionals networking with drinks in their hand around tables
Managers wishing to build the social capital of diverse employees should strive to make networking activities inclusive, accessible and welcoming to each person in the organization. For example, women often have disproportionate responsibility caring for children and/or elderly parents and may not have the scheduling flexibility to attend a business dinner. Managers wishing to include more women in networking activities might choose instead to have an extended business lunch in the middle of the workday. Someone who was not exposed to golf as part of their cultural upbringing may not feel comfortable playing a round of golf. An alternative might be to have the team engage in a community volunteering event where everyone could contribute.

Older employees and people who have limited mobility may not be able to participate in physically demanding team-building activities such as bowling or axe throwing. An alternative might be to arrange for the group to get a guided tour of a local museum followed by coffee or drinks. This type of activity is more likely to be inclusive to a wider group of individuals.

The focus of this article has been to emphasize the importance of developing the social capital of employees of diverse backgrounds and demographics to enhance their career growth in performance plastics organizations. The following bullet points summarize suggestions for developing the careers of a diverse workforce.

Advice for managers
  • Make sure that each employee has opportunities for career progression via both human capital development (knowledge and skills training) and social capital development (building the strength and reach of their professional networks).
  • Serve as an advocate for your direct reports including those with diverse backgrounds and demographics. Provide each employee with meaningful collaborative work assignments and stretch assignments. These have the dual benefit of accomplishing important work while also building employees’ professional networks.
  • Take care to ensure that social, teambuilding and networking activities are accessible and inclusive for all employees.
  • Invest your time developing the careers of your team without regard to their race, age, ethnicity, sex, physical ability or sexual orientation. This will have dramatic positive effects on both the employees and the organization.
Advice for performance plastics professionals
  • Assess your current network to determine if it is of a sufficient size and if it includes people who can help you accomplish your work and achieve your career goals. Also determine if your network includes a mix of close business relationships and more distant acquaintances who have access to unique information and resources. Focus on filling any gaps in your professional network2.
  • Volunteer for stretch assignments and collaborative work assignments that provide the opportunity for professional networking, especially when the assignment involves interacting with individuals who have the position and influence to help you to accomplish your work objectives and achieve your career goals.
  • Attend conferences, professional meetings, supplier training sessions and customer events that provide opportunities to develop your professional network.
  1. Forret, M. (2006). The impact of social networks on the advancement of women and racial/ethnic minority groups. In M. F. Karsten (Ed.), Gender, ethnicity, and race in the workplace (Vol. 3) (pp. 149-166). Westport, CT: Praeger.
  2. Forret, M. & Sullivan, S. (2002). A balanced scorecard approach to networking: A guide to successfully navigating career changes. Organizational Dynamics, 31(3), 245-258.
Dr. Keith Hechtel is Senior Director of Business Development for Curbell Plastics, Inc., located in Orchard Park, NY. He has a Doctor of Business Administration degree from Saint Ambrose University, a Master of Science degree in Industrial Technology from Illinois State University, and over 35 years of plastics industry experience. His doctoral research involved studying how social capital contributes to the career success of salespeople working in the plastics industry.