How To Survive at Work as a Person of Color : Life Kit Changing workplace culture isn't the job of marginalized employees. But knowing how to manage your boss or document your daily work can help employees of color — even if it just shows you when you've had enough.

How To Survive In A Mostly White Workplace: Tips For Marginalized Employees

How To Survive In A Mostly White Workplace: Tips For Marginalized Employees

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Sol Cotti for NPR
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Sol Cotti for NPR

Like many people, Alan Henry has worked in positions in the past where he didn't feel heard or valued. Henry, now the service editor at WIRED, says that's a common experience among people of color and marginalized employees.

Many companies, including NPR, struggle when it comes to diverse hiring. In 2019, 28 percent of the newsroom at NPR was made up of people of color, while just below 71 percent of the newsroom was white. But creating an equitable workplace goes beyond hiring — it's also about retaining and supporting marginalized employees.

The human resources consulting firm Mercer found this year that just two percent of executives across U.S. industries surveyed are Black or African American, while just three percent are Latino. It also found that representation of all people of color across industries decreases as employees rise through the ranks.

Often the work of changing company culture to create an equitable workplace free from harassment falls on people of color and marginalized employees. They advocate for their own mentorship, guidance and leadership positions, because no one else does.

To be clear: it's certainly not on people of color or marginalized employees to change the cultures at their companies. Company leadership needs to be at the forefront of improving workplace diversity through hiring, recruiting, training, calling out microaggressions, and mentorship.

But if you are a person of color or otherwise marginalized employee looking for some ways to fight for things like promotions and leadership opportunities — here are some ideas to do so while protecting yourself.

1. Keep a work diary of your accomplishments and daily duties.

Keeping a log of your responsibilities can help you keep track of what's on your plate, Henry says. Sit down frequently (daily or weekly) and note down accomplishments. Did you feel good about what you did? Do you feel like you were treated fairly while doing that work? Henry says keeping track of how work makes you feel will show "how it fits into your overall career goals and the goals of your team."

It also helps you keep track of whether you are doing office housework — behind the scenes grunt-work — or something that will better advance your career.

Finally, you can use your work diary as evidence when it comes time to ask for a promotion. It can make a written or verbal ask stronger if your boss needs to make the case for you to their boss. It can also help when applying to a new job — you'll already have a list of your accomplishments and all the work you did.

2. Manage your boss.

You may have heard about managing up before. When managing up, you make sure that everything you agree to do is aligned with your boss' priorities, Henry says, but it should also align with your team's goals, and your own.

Say your boss wants you to book a conference room for team meetings every week. The easy thing might seem to be to just do it, if it helps out the entire team. But if it's not in your job description, you could suggest to your boss that your team rotates the responsibility every week, so everyone has a part in this work.

Or maybe you want to go to a conference to discuss something you have expertise in. Make the case. Book a time to check-in and plant the seeds in your boss' mind well ahead of time, so they know to consider you when it comes time to send people to the conference or budget for it.

3. Look into starting an employee resource group at the company, to find your people.

Employee resource groups act as a network for marginalized employees. They're a place to have a safe space and discuss issues like microaggressions and frustrations in the workplace, and get support from your community.

"I actually think employee resource groups are critical to the success of the advancement of underrepresented communities in the workforce, because this is an opportunity where you already have people who self-identified as leaders," says Minda Harts, CEO of The Memo, and author of the book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table. "They've taken on leadership roles, oftentimes as a volunteer."

Harts says that many companies have not leveraged the leadership taking place in these spaces. These programs often need budgets, she says, because "it's really hard to scale diversity with no budget."

So while marginalized employees can start these resource groups, organization leaders need to act as executive sponsors, working with them and investing in them. Investing in employees' success will only benefit companies in the long run.

4. Collect data to make your case.

If you need more help, Henry says that data can be your best friend.

"I tell people to make notes about how many times you got the housework vs. glamour work, and what that looks like for your co-workers," Henry says. "Putting that data together is what you can use to get past someone's implicit biases. But that also assumes you have enough faith in [your] manager to do what needs to be done."

You can also come to your boss with a potential solution, he says. You might suggest: "'I noticed that person X led the last five meetings. Maybe we could rotate, maybe I can lead the next five.'"

5. Know when it's time to leave to pursue a better opportunity, and remember to protect your boundaries.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when no matter what you do, things don't change. It's time to make a change if your work begins to take a toll on your mental health.

"Remember, you were hired in the first place because you have skills," Henry says. "You can get hired somewhere else."

Of course, it depends on where you are financially, but if an organization is not serving you, you will continue to be unhappy.

"Maybe that table that you're at right now may not be for you," Harts says. "But there is one that will welcome you and will advance you and will support you in the ways that you need."


The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle.

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