The sweeping changes to workplaces triggered by the pandemic have created a unique opportunity to make them more inclusive for workers of color. And while the sense of belonging at work has increased among marginalized groups as remote work has stretched on, research also suggests they’ve experienced higher levels of harassment, hostility, and burnout. Toxic patterns of exclusion can be so deeply embedded into the way teams function that they persist in and out of the office. That exclusion can include an imbalance in who gets saddled with office housework and who gets to do what author Alan Henry calls the ‘glamour work,’ the tasks that earn recognition and propel career advancement.
To understand how to disrupt those patterns and more fully transform workplaces, we spoke with Henry, a senior editor at Wired who wrote the recently published Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized. We discussed optimal systems for assigning work, how managers can make themselves easy to manage up to, and the importance of keeping a work diary. Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What does it mean to be marginalized at work? What does it look like in terms of the day to day?
In the book, I shared a story in the chapter on microaggressions about when I was working at The New York Times and I found someone had unplugged my laptop pretty much every day. If I came into work and I needed to run to a meeting immediately, I would either have to sit at my desk and wait for it to charge first, or I’d have to go to the meeting without my laptop. Suddenly I’m at a disadvantage: I can’t take notes, I can’t look things up. So those microaggressions can play into specific roles that a person has at work.
Marginalization happens whenever somebody is on the outside looking in, and their career is impacted because of that. When they don’t feel like they get to sit at the cool kids table, that’s one thing—and it’s a problem at work in and of itself—but when it starts to impact your work and the opportunities that you get, that’s when I talk about a person being marginalized.
If a manager sees that dynamic playing out on their team, where one person is being marginalized by their colleagues, what can they do?
Managers have the opportunity to say things in meetings like, ‘Okay, so-and-so, we hear from you a lot, which is great, but we don’t hear from X, Y, or Z very often.’ Bring those other people to the fore, and make a point to include everyone on your team in team-based discussions. Of course, not every person thrives in the moment, right? Sometimes you may have somebody who’s marginalized on a team who’s introverted, and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in large group settings. Go to them after the meeting and say, ‘Hey, I noticed you didn’t talk very much in that meeting. Do you have any ideas? What are your thoughts?’
When I found my laptop unplugged pretty much every day, I told my manager about it, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing she can do. She can’t sit there at my desk when I’m not there to catch whoever it is. In those cases where it’s a systemic thing that you really can’t do anything about as a manager, it’s important for a manager to offer their employees some sense of psychological safety to communicate that they have this issue.
I tell employees to keep a work diary of when the bad things happen and the good things happen, but it’s important for managers to do the same. It’s important to understand that people have different personal situations and those personal situations affect how they work. If somebody’s being subtly marginalized or subtly excluded over the course of their job, it’s helpful to be able to openly say, ‘I don’t know how to fix this, but if you and I come up with anything, then I’m willing to talk about it. Let’s keep track of how often this happens.’
And when it’s time to review someone’s performance, understand that that person had a leg down because these other things are going on in the workplace that neither you or they can control. Understand that their social baggage, and the way that they may be marginalized on your team or in your company, plays a role in how much energy they have to bring to their actual job, because they’re doing a whole other job in terms of managing that social baggage in the workplace. We tend to evaluate people based on their job descriptions: Are they exceeding expectations? Are they meeting expectations? Maybe they’re meeting expectations, and if they didn’t have to deal with all this other stuff, they would be exceeding expectations. If that’s the case, I’m not going to automatically say they’re exceeding expectations, but I am going to turn and look at myself and say, ‘What can I do as a manager to remove that other stuff so they can thrive?’
You mentioned psychological safety—on a tactical level, how is that cultivated?
If you don’t have a one-on-one with every single one of your employees, you need one. And make sure that that meeting is less you checking in on them, and more telling them that it is a very important time for them to check in with you. When I have a one-on-one with my boss, he generally asks me right away, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ And I don’t always have something for him, but that’s fine. He’s not expecting anything. He doesn’t make me feel bad when I say, ‘Nothing I can think of.’ His response to me is great: ‘If you come up with anything, let me know.’
Another thing I think is really useful and important is to do the people tour. One of the most powerful things that some of my managers did when I was at The New York Times was swing by my desk and say, ‘Hey, let’s go grab a coffee.’ It’s saying, ‘I’m here for you. I’m here to help you. And we’re all busy, but I am willing to carve out time for you because you’re important.’ These days, I am growing to love the Slack huddle, because that super quick voice call is the closest thing to talking to somebody as you can get when you’re remote. It doesn’t have the weight of setting up a Zoom, or an email, which feels more serious. Breaking down that sense of importance by saying, ‘It’s okay for us to communicate routinely’ is really, really good.
In your book, you talk about the importance for marginalized workers of effectively managing up. Why is that so valuable, and what can managers do to make themselves more easily managed?
Managers need to be able to say, ‘Here are my priorities. In concrete terms, here are the things that I want our team to do this month.’ Things may change, but as long as you understand the things that are most important, you will be able to prioritize your own work in a way that lines up with what those priorities are.
When you are marginalized, you are the last one to hear about everything. You are the last one to hear about what the priorities are. You are the last one to be engaged in the kind of work that matters the most to your team and will advance your career. Being clear to your team helps your marginalized employees in an outsized way, so that they get to do the kind of work that matters not just to you, but to the team and to the company—the kind that gets recognized in awards and at the company conference, and will get them lined up for a promotion.
What’s the best system to make sure that work gets assigned more fairly?
I love a rotating calendar. Everyone should book meeting rooms. Everyone should order lunch. Everyone should take notes. Once you build that framework where everybody gets a turn doing the work that no one wants to do, you have a framework for everyone getting a chance to do the work that everyone wants to do. When your team is used to you saying, ‘Jim, you booked the conference room last week, so Jenny, it’s your turn this week,’ they’ll be used to you saying, ‘Jim, you went to the professional conference last year, so Jenny, it’s your turn.’ I especially love a rotation that involves a manager, because then you understand exactly how much time it takes out of the day.