PART 1: The experience of being different at work
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
I spoke to yet another human being and consistently high performing person of colour who is being continuously misjudged and covertly driven out by an insecure manager and leadership. They are being denied opportunities to thrive, not being allowed space to exist, being micro-managed, being treated with impatience disproportionately in comparison to peers who share the ethnicity of the manager in question, being over-scrutinised, denied space for their natural talent to shine, grow and be applied to the benefit of the organisation – and all because their '#difference' is felt to be threatening and has made their manager, leadership and some peers insecure, defensive and psychologically unsafe.
This has been going on for some months and has caused this #POC to slowly develop imposter syndrome, question their own sanity and for their performance to feel strained, for them to feel unsafe at work, they have been pushed to work 16+ hour days almost every day, weekends included by their manager, their mental health has been damaged after numerous one to ones driven by an incompetent manager's insecurity and fear and their physical health has deteriorated. This is not a singular case. It is not just this company. It is not just this manager. It is not just this employee. It is not just because they are a person of colour. My friends across the colour and identity spectrum around the #UK, #US, #India, #MiddleEast, #Asia and the world are experiencing this or varying versions of this as I write this.
Recently, a Whitx leader, visibly somewhat uncomfortably, introduced me in a meeting as a new team member and by way of compliment in their mind said "...she asks a lot of questions...and that's great…". I later spoke with another leader of colour who said their Whitx manager often struggled to understand their handling of situations because their style was so different to their manager's decision-making, communicating and problem-solving approach due to which they had to often spend more of their working time and energy thinking, censoring, picking the moment to speak - every day, every moment, always on edge and hyper aware of causal impact and repercussions of just speaking and being their authentic self (something I've experienced my entire working life, at university and at school - what I still experience subtly or otherwise every day doing race equity and inclusion work in a predominantly Whitx space).
Another woman of colour related how working in HR-led DEI meant she had to be split between Whitx leaders leading DEI work and the employee networks she was a part of and even while in HR, could not find any support or be herself and speak to facts to create the change she was tasked to do because as her colleague of colour reflected, they were often always stuck between either Distrust or Mistrust be it their Whitx colleagues or colleagues of colour – constant states which had to navigated daily with extreme anxiety and hyper vigilance because they did not have the right combination of power plus privilege plus influence to create the change needed and implicitly expected from them because they were employees of colour.
These were just from conversations and direct experiences just in 1 day among others. I am reflecting this morning at how common these experiences are - whether you are a person of colour or not; these experiences take different forms and are painfully common in schools, universities, across socio-economic boundaries and scarily, among teachers, HR professionals, leaders and those responsible for creating humans, caring for them and developing them.
Being labelled, excluded and denied, a daily experience.
The few experiences and conversations I relate here, which happen daily as a woman of colour with disabilities and several other intersecting identities, made me stocktake today and realise how many times questioning new employees and existing ones were mentally and covertly labelled for being different and judged even before they have a chance to do any work. They are almost set-up to fail because the expectations have been pegged against them for appearing or perceived to be changemakers. Labels like feisty, force to be reckoned with, outspoken, brave etc have roots in #microaggresions.
Often, these labels carry the subtle sub-text of being clocked immediately as a potential troublemaker or being ‘difficult’ because new and different people had a culturally/ different way of thinking, communicating, working or questioning and how often this crossed over with them also being different themselves in some way - POC, disabilities nonbinary etc.
I am also no stranger at first hand seeing and having to defend those who are disproportionately treated badly because of their difference or position in the ethnic hierarchy of discrimination. Add to that perpetrators come from across the colour, gender, class and identity spectrum.
In my personal lived experience, the worse bullies/ harassers/ back-stabbers/ bad managers/ traumatisers/ abusers have sadly been many women, and women of colour which has felt like the worst betrayal of all. No gender has the monopoly on traumatising others in their care ofcourse but it strikes me how surprised a lot of my female colleagues at work and in professional and personal networks are when they find another woman they trust who doesn’t compete or judge them or try to destroy their credibility or steal their work or clients and that it isn’t more surprising when the negative does happen and the perpetrator is another woman.
Equally striking is when my female colleagues come across male managers who do not hit on them or proposition them covertly in exchange for something or with whom they can let their guard down and are not judged through stereotypes. The examples of what many like me have dealt with within HR or organisations both as looking after employees and as employees ourselves are too countless to go into here but the pattern is shocking and visible to those who listen with an open mind and do not deny another’s unspoken and unshared lived reality at work or home.
Put simply, this is not an issue limited by identities. It is a culture of incompetence allowed by unethical leaders and bad HR practitioners where incompetence is felt to be less threatening than intelligence, especially the more ‘different’ a package that intelligence and questioning space comes in.
I recall, with distress and disappointment, how often, in my 18+ years of working in HR with leaders from over 200+ different nationalities; I have had to fight for what was right, fight for the ethical treatment and fair judgement of employees who were different, challenge unethical peers and managers who then worked diligently to paint me in a bad light and destroy my reputation, and how often I struggled to be understood by people and systems that were limited in their own worldview, ideology, intellect, and scared of difference and a challenge (from a woman no less) to their privilege, power and influence.
Too often at work, I had to justify not just my own different approach to thinking and problem-solving but justify why I was questioning what was broken, why I asked questions around what we could do better, do differently; why I, as a #WOC, thought it my place to question what was the way it was. It was a daily struggle while being labelled as "bad / trouble / outspoken and other covert polite-sounding judgements of me, my character and motivations", being dismissed or having my talent diminished by those women and men alike who were too comfortable in their cushy leadership and HR positions, who were either too afraid to fight and challenge a broken system or too incompetent and yet in positions of power due to ethnic privilege, nepotism, tenure etc or too unethical and corrupt so they did not want to change the system.
Why is this important?
This is just but a tiny snippet, from one day, of wider traumatic lived experiences in organisations, communities and the world. I know it all too well as an expat – a perpetual outside who belongs nowhere and everywhere all at once no matter which space I enter. I know also that what I relate here is more common than many realise and extremely prevalent in the UK, US and not just in Asia or Middle East or elsewhere.
Dig deep if you are reading and this and ask yourself if you relate and share your experience too in the comments. Someone may need to hear it or relate or feel heard and feel a little less alone. The reason I write about this is because people are shocked at these experiences I have had and think they are a one off. I have looked after hundreds of employees as an HR Business Partner and in various other HR roles – these traumatic experiences and more are the norm, not the outlier.
The state of things will stay the same unless we all grow an ethical consciousness driven by a justice and growth mindset that accepts difference as the norm.
It has to be taught in #school, at #university and embedded in workplaces through independent accountability of HR and leaders within organisations just as we try and do for governments, we put in power that eventually work for the interests of the few - because we do not exercise our voice and ability to question and assess in a balanced non-binary way, considering various arguments - not just one side against the other - when it counts.
So, you ask, what is my call to action then and what do HR and leaders need to do better by those who are different to the established colourless norm? Read Part 2 - its no holds barred and from the heart.
NOTE: The opinions expressed here are my own and are a snapshot in time relevant to the real-life experiences I have had at this point. They may or may not change in the future as I learn more and grow more. I welcome readers to share their experiences and reflections on reading this article.
(originally published on Linkedin)