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Why I Spoke Up At Work and How You Can Too

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

7 ways you can make a difference at your workplace!

Since my start at [redacted), I have consistently done my part to become a better professional, collaborator, and teammate.

It seems that women are reprimanded for being brief or short in communication. However, during my time here, I’ve witnessed men communicate similarly—even walking out of meetings on some occasions—without the same criticism. Furthermore, I’ve been asked repeatedly to be less aggressive (demeanors consistently associated with Black women) and to try to be “softer”. Terms like aggressive, sassy, and bossy carry a negative connotation when referring to women of color who are firm and confident when they speak. I’ve also been told to “smile more”.

My experiences as a black woman at [(redacted]), are consistent with studies and reports about the way Black women who work in predominantly white workspaces are disproportionately regarded as aggressive or less pleasant. And this, unfortunately, has a psychological cost. I deal with the micro-aggressions I outlined above on a routine basis.

It negatively impacts my self-confidence at work and affects my day-to-day actions/communication. Since becoming a CSM (Customer Success Manager), I’ve felt more pressure as a woman of color to succeed in a culture that wasn’t designed for me than a professional trying to excel in a new role.

Considering the increased focus on diversity and inclusion at [redacted], I think the company can work to better understand cultural differences that affect personality and communication and encourage all employees, especially senior staff, to change their perspectives when they interact with employees outside of the customary hire

Above is an excerpt from a letter I sent to my previous HR Department in 2019. One month after this email was sent, I, with a group of Black employees, started a Diversity & Inclusion Employee Resource Group. The group was dedicated to making sure every employee, regardless of race, sexual orientation, and background, felt like they belonged at the company.

One year later, with circumstances around George Floyd, Breyonna Taylor, and other deaths of unarmed Black people, there has been a surge in diversity and inclusion efforts. There is no time like the present for you to speak up and demand change at your company

Read on to see how you can speak up or demand change in your company through an internal dialogue, a commitment to long-term action, or immediate support for Black employees.

1. Identify Your Target(s)

If your Executive or HR Team has been silent or has responded inadequately to the most recent events, identify whose responsibility it is to address and demand organizational change.

You can ask the following questions to determine the appropriate department and teams.

  1. Are internal events typically employee or employer-led?

  2. Were there recent events around COVID-response? Who led those conversations/events?

  3. What is the protocol for escalating inappropriate behavior within the company? This is important if you are bringing up previous claims (filed or unfiled) of racial discrimination.

2. Understand the Risks

Speaking up rarely comes without risks. For me, the benefits outweighed the risks.

I sent the email referenced in my introduction, understanding that it may cost me my job and my relationship with my boss.

However, I had a trusting relationship with the COO at the company, I was hardworking, and a leader on my team. I was comfortable enough in my privilege and influence to speak up, but also in my skills to easily find another job if I was released from the company

Because of my close relationship with other minorities in the company, I knew my feelings and, most importantly, my experiences were not unique to me. And as a senior employee, I felt obligated to speak up.

3. Complain With Solutions: Prepare Suggestions or Examples

Come with specific suggestions for what you would like to see your company execute - such as making a public statement, observing a Juneteenth as a national holiday, donating to a Black organization, or holding a company-wide town hall meeting – be sure to include this in your correspondences when you voice your concerns.

Articulating your solutions to improve company culture and values alongside your complaints will make your communication more effective. Also, it will help you channel your needs into actionable outcomes.

If you are unsure what immediate or long-term steps your company can take, research how other organizations have responded. Some of my favorite examples are:

You can see more examples of companies responding to racial injustice here.

4. If Needed Leverage Your Manager

If reaching out to the CEO, Executive Team, or HR department is too daunting or intimidating, leverage your manager to escalate your concerns.

Bring up your concerns during a team meeting or a one-on-one meeting with your manager. This can also be a good option if you work at a large company, and your manager is CEO, or Executive Team are detached from your everyday experience.

5. Do Not Wait for Your Executive Team To Show Support

Support Black Colleagues - Support Those Who Look Like You

You do not need a company-backed group to provide camaraderie and a sense of belonging among Black colleagues.

A lot of my success in these exclusive spaces are owed to my previous Black co-workers. They planned outings and created private slack groups to make sure other Black people and I felt included and supported.

My first year(s) in advertising technology was during the trial of Trayvon Martin and the Baltimore protests in response to Freddie Gray’s death. You can imagine the lack of connection from HR, the Executive Team, and my non-Black colleagues. Having a small group and planned outings to discuss these experiences were extremely valuable for me as an entry-level professional.

This moment was so significant that I continued this practice throughout my career.

When my last company started hiring more Black people, I created a private slack group to welcome them to the company and introduce them to trusted friendly faces. While, this was a direct response to me observing Black new hires were not welcomed the same way as White new hires. It also provided a safe and trusted space to discuss trends, pop culture updates, or company policies that directly impacted us.

Support Black Colleagues - Support Those Who Do Not Look Like You

As an ally, you do not have to wait to reach out to co-workers ( friends or close acquaintances) to offer support or check-in.

Also, a part of allyship is speaking up on behalf of those who are shunned for giving pushback or those who may be emotionally unstable because of the current events. 2020 may not be the first year your Black colleague(s) have worked during protests and political unrest. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are not the first names we have chanted, grieved, or fought for. This is a time for professionals who do not identify as Black to come together as allies for the Black employees and community.

Challenge yourself to take action when you know something is wrong and offer support without expecting praise, attribution, or acknowledgment.

6. Stay Informed and Keep Involving

With each change, remember to do your part to be an ally, to change the culture of your organization, and to incorporate anti-discrimination actions into your professional routine.

Before our first diversity and inclusion meeting, I researched how to be more inclusive at work and in meetings. Below are some examples of what I have adopted and practice in my day-to-day professional and personal habits:

  • Always ask meeting attendees do they have anything to add. This will help provide the opportunity for women or timid co-workers to speak up.

  • Replace gender-specific salutations with more inclusive language. For example, instead of saying, “How Are You Guys Doing” say “How Is Everyone doing”.

  • Do not trivialize your co-workers’ concerns. Instead of saying, “I’ve never had a problem with it/them.” ask for more information on the issue.

  • Avoid jokes where a specific group is the butt of the joke.

  • Be cautious about prying into people’s personal matters unless you are close friends. For example, avoid asking questions like “what did you do on your day off” or “why did you take off.”Often employees will take a mental health day, and they are not comfortable sharing this information with you because of the stigma around mental health.

  • Reduce anxiety amongst your co-workers by providing agendas or setting expectations of your needs.

The best way to be an ally, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or religion, is to listen and understand that there is always learning to be done. Your education is up to you and no one else.

7. Prioritize Your Emotional Well-Being: Speak Now or Speak Later

Above all else, prioritize your emotional well-being. Make sure you can sustain and thrive in these moments while also honoring your personal values!

Discussing racism In the workplace can be extremely rewarding, but also exhausting. For some, speaking against inappropriate behavior in the workplace may be easier than speaking against racial injustices in the workplace, and that is okay.

My email in the introduction was a response to an incident that occurred two days prior. However, with the most recent events, it has taken me much longer to speak up at my current company. My delayed response and action are due to new deaths and unfortunate events that continue to occur and go underreported. Deaths of Oluwatoyin Salau, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, and Riah Milton forced me to put my workplace grievances on a back-burner to prioritize my emotional and mental well-being.

Do not let your silence today discourage you from speaking up, befriending your Black colleagues, or starting an employee resource group in the future!

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