Shifting power to assert belonging
A practical way to empower people in underrepresented groups to navigate belonging in their careers
For much of the past year, I’ve explored opportunities for technology to correct problems in the broader diversity and inclusion space. I’m inspired by the promise of inclusion as well as the people working tirelessly to research, fix, or talk about the problem.
What I’ve found to be critically absent from the diversity and inclusion conversation is a practical way to empower people in underrepresented groups to navigate belonging in their careers.
While belonging at work — the idea that you can be your true authentic self in the workplace — is a powerful concept, its realization is highly relative and contextual. A company might think that it’s created a culture of belonging, but you might think otherwise; you might think a company is a place where anyone can belong, but your peers might not. That belonging sits at the intersection of you, your peers, and the company (or leadership) isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it opens the door for differing opinions about something that feels inherently personal. These alternative viewpoints can be a great way to further the promise of belonging, but they can also suspend its realization in the context of an uneven distribution of power.
When you’re in an underrepresented group, your perspective on your own belonging at work (at least in the context of group association) is by definition a minority opinion. This quickly becomes problematic when you see things one way and a predominantly white male leadership team sees them another. A recent study from the Boston Consulting Group in which people from underrepresented groups were asked to rank the perceived effectiveness of different diversity programs highlights this reality. Where people of color highly ranked formal executive sponsorships, white males did not. Where LGBTQ employees highly ranked gender-neutral restrooms, straight white males did not.
This study is intriguing to me, but primarily because I’ve seen and heard the way that this plays out in everyday life. I hear new stories about management failing to address issues that are important to people in underrepresented groups monthly. What’s often most frustrating to the people that tell these stories is not that management has failed to fix issues, but instead that management has failed to share insight into what’s being done (or will be done) and when.
What concerns me most is the amount of discretion that management teams have in deciding when and how to listen to, prioritize, and implement solutions to various needs.
Private companies are inherently independent, but I’m at a loss for recalling instances in black / latinx / women’s / LGBTQ+ history when discretion has worked to our advantage. On the contrary, discretion, driven by bias, has historically been a tool used to protect the status quo.
Let’s use restrictive covenants as a historical example. Until Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, it was legal for homeowners and real estate agents to enter into covenants that discriminated against homebuyers based on race. Under these agreements, white neighborhoods could use market dynamics to remain exclusively white. While now illegal, this discretion is directly responsible for much of the housing segregation that we see today in metropolitan areas around the country.
For a more modern workplace example, consider how common it was a few years ago for hiring managers to reject candidates based on culture fit. In the same way that real estate agents and homebuyers entered into restrictive covenants to keep neighborhoods white, employers used a vague understanding of company culture to create informal agreements that protected the composition of their teams and companies. Over the age of 50 and looking for a job at a startup in San Francisco? Forget about it. Not a culture fit. A woman looking for a product management position at a tech company? Sorry, you’re not technical enough. I’m seeing these types of rejection much less today but believe they manifest in other ways.
To be fair, these hiring managers were not bad people, but they perpetuated a culture of exclusion.
Unfortunately, you could make the same argument about the people that entered into restrictive covenants. In both cases, we have systems of power that were created and maintained by discretion. While we want to believe that the restrictive covenant situation is different, the mechanisms and motivations at play are equivalent.
The silver lining is that, unlike neighborhoods, organizations face conformity risk, and that’s bad for business. In today’s competitive climate of endless alternatives and personalization, businesses need to deeply understand their customers to grow and innovate. Having leaders at the highest levels of the organization that live and empathize with them is a significant advantage. The best companies know this, and are invested in sourcing candidates from underrepresented groups at all levels. And I expect that trend to continue. The bad news is that while people in leadership positions make great allies, they must also find a way to change the system from within. Your new female or black or LGBTQ vice president is up against the odds.
So where do we go from here?
These two points — that belonging is relative and that organizations face conformity risk — offer insight into how we can empower people in underrepresented groups at work.
First, as part of a group, individuals have significantly more power than they ever did alone. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a testament to this, though I think there are certainly pros and cons to ERGs precisely because they operate within the system. Unions, on the other hand, offer a more relevant model for creating a balance of power to drive change. Yet the lasting impact of unionization on workers rights is something that many of us are either unaware of or take for granted.
Second, conformity risk directly impacts the bottom line beyond growth and innovation. Companies often talk about “the leaky pipeline” as a bad thing. And it is for them, but it’s actually another lever for creating a balance of power. Estimates for the cost of turnover range from 50–200% of salary, depending on employee level. Failure to retain people in underrepresented groups is a significant financial loss for companies. Coupled with conformity risk, a leaky pipeline is a devastating blow to profit margins and future earning potential. The very possibility of this outcome creates a unique business opportunity for the dissatisfied.
Armed with these two facts, I don’t suggest that people in underrepresented groups quit their jobs and stick it to the man, but I do propose that we acknowledge and communicate the power that this gives us, and reframe the conversation in terms of that value. My challenge with the present narrative is that we see companies as more powerful than we are, and so we tolerate cultures that don’t support us for much longer than we should. But companies are nothing without their employees. And the status quo is a death sentence in business.
It’s time to assert a new narrative. One where we are not at the mercy of companies but instead key stakeholders in the future of enterprise.
The most impactful judicial decisions of the 1960s followed a shifting social climate outside of the courtroom.
Applying that lesson to our present circumstances, we can and should work outside of the system (our companies) to accelerate changes within. We live in a world where data is power, yet we, and the companies that we work for, think about and approach diversity changes in a disconnected, siloed way.
But what if that weren’t the case? What if we could, in helping our own companies navigate the challenges of belonging, help people in other companies too? What if we could share insights and progress to create roadmaps with proven strategies and implementation for belonging?
- Every person and company would have access to a practical guide to navigate belonging.
- Leadership teams would be transparent and accountable.
- People in underrepresented groups would not be responsible for carrying the burden of belonging as they are now, but for oversight of how their leadership teams create a culture of belonging.
We have every piece of information required for a system like this to function, but we need to work together to transform it into a new type of currency.
And to be clear, while this post is focused on underrepresented groups, I think this framework can and should be broadly applied.
Would love to hear what you think. Please 👏 this article to share it, and follow me (Adam Cockell) on Medium! Special thanks to all of the people that helped me think through this, especially Emilie Grove.