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 is a transcript of our conversation:
What does it mean to be marginalized at work? What does that look like in terms of the day-to-day?
One thing that I like to tell people a lot is that marginalization is for everyone. Obviously a lot of the focus of the book is on my experience, where I feel like I have been marginalized based on race and ethnicity, but it goes far beyond that. I also talk in the book about people who are marginalized because of their queerness or their LGBTQ identity, women who are marginalized in majority-male workspaces, disabled people who are marginalized in mostly able-bodied workspaces. It goes on from there. Ultimately marginalization happens whenever somebody is on the outside looking in, and their career is impacted because of that.
If they don't feel like they're one of the cool kids who gets to sit at the cool kids table, that’s one thing. I mean, that sucks, and it's a problem at work on its own. But when it starts to impact your work, the opportunities you're considered for, and the kind of work that you are asked to do, in a way that affects your career growth over the long term, that's when I talk about a person being marginalized. If you are the person who is stuck taking notes in a meeting all the time, instead of the person who gets the opportunity to present your ideas in that same meeting, then you are probably being marginalized for some reason, whatever reason that may be.
In cases when that marginalization is at the hands of colleagues, what can a manager do if they see this playing out in their team?
The first thing I would tell managers to do—and this is something that I try to do on my own team—is to disrupt it when it happens. Is someone on your team the loudest person in the room, for example? Everyone knows when they have that person on their team, and usually your team doesn't have the power to do something about it. They're probably all grumbling amongst themselves about that one guy who always seems to get the greatest assignments, because they're the person who speaks up. Managers, on the other hand, have the opportunity to say things in meetings like, ‘Okay, so-and-so, we hear from you a lot, which is great.I appreciate that, but we don't hear from X, Y, or Z very often.’ Being able to bring those other people to the fore, and making a point to include everyone on your team discussions. is really important.
Of course, not every person thrives in the moment, right? Sometimes you may have somebody who's marginalized on a team because they're introverted and they don't feel comfortable speaking up in large group settings. Then you 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?’ That's really helpful too.
A lot of times, marginalization shows itself in people feeling disempowered. If it's a systemic thing where there's something going on that you really can't do anything about as a manager—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 my laptop being unplugged pretty much every day. At the end of the day, my manager, as much as I told her about it, 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 that case, I think it’s important for a manager to offer their employees some sense of psychological safety to communicate that they have this issue, this issue is real, it's affecting their work, and I'm going to take that into account as a manager when it comes time to judge the work that you do.
We don't like to bring personal factors into our evaluations of somebody's work performance, but 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, show them a little empathy and say, ‘Hey, I understand this is going on. 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. If I need to move your seat, if you want to sit with me— if we don't have a one-on-one, we definitely should—if we want to have a one-on-one where we keep track of how often this happens, then let’s do all of those things.’
I tell employees to keep a work diary, with notes of when the bad things happen and when the good things happen at work. But I feel like it's important for managers to do the same. At the end of the day, these people are your responsibility. I hate to ask everybody to do more work in order to work better, but sometimes it's important. And the last thing you want is to be a manager and then be blindsided that the reason that that person is packing up every day at 4:40 on the dot is not because they're not a team player, it's because they have a kid they need to pick up from daycare.
For performance reviews, once you say, ‘I understand what this workplace dynamic is like for you, I understand that there are microaggressions that affect the way you work,’ how do you then incorporate that understanding in the way you evaluate and work with someone?
A lot of it has to do with understanding how those microaggressions play into specific roles that that person has at work. For example, in my case, with the very silly thing that involved my laptop, if I came into work and I needed to run to a meeting immediately, I could not do that with my laptop. I would either have to sit at my desk and wait for it to charge, and then I could go to the meeting, or I'd have to go to the meeting without my laptop. And now suddenly I'm at a disadvantage: I can't take notes. I can't look things up.
So as a manager, keep track of that kind of thing. And then 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, and that means you can't judge them on the same level as you would judge their privileged peers. I'm not saying, ‘Oh, the minority person on your team automatically has to get a leg up in their performance reviews because they have social baggage they bring to work with them.’ I mean, that is true. But when it comes to their actual work performance and the job that they do, you do have to 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.
A lot of that comes down to being able to say, ‘Who is this person on my team?’ Not just their work function, not just the job description that they fill, because we tend to evaluate people based on their job descriptions. Are they exceeding expectations? Are they meeting expectations? That's fine. But also, who is this person? Are they meeting expectations, and if they didn't have to deal with all this other stuff, would they be exceeding expectations? If that's the case, I'm not going to automatically say they're exceeding expectations. I'm 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, so they can exceed my expectations?’
You mentioned psychological safety—on a tactical level, how is that cultivated? What does it then enable?
Psychological safety is super important to me. The key is allowing everybody to bring their whole selves to work. In HR circles, we talk a lot about giving people the freedom to bring their whole selves to work. Psychological safety allows people to come to work and know that they can talk about the things that matter to them, without having to shelve a part of their personalities because it's work. But I think it also enables us to build more inclusive and more cooperative and more intimate teams. Because we know, for example, that that person on the team has to leave at 5:00 pm sharp to go pick up their kids, or the reason why so-and-so never comes to beers after work is because they're recovering alcoholic and they don't wanna go to a bar. Those kinds of things are the benefits of psychological safety.
Creating it is actually really easy. It's just about showing some humanity and showing some empathy from a manager's perspective. So many of us are so focused on the day-to-day responsibilities and the things that are rolling down to us that we forget that all of these people in this equation are human beings, with inner lives and dreams and goals and desires. Trying to remember that each of these people is a person, and then engaging with them as people, counts for a lot. It’s about you as a manager bringing your own humanity to the table so your employees can see it.
A little bit of vulnerability goes a really, really long way. It has to be relatable vulnerability, because I've met with CEOs and editors-in-chief and very powerful people whose idea of bringing their own vulnerability to the table is like, ‘Oh man, my daughter's horse lessons are blah, blah, blah.’ That's real to them, but that's not real to their employee who's making $40,000 and does not have a daughter or cannot afford a horse. Showing that you are a relatable human being and you have some understanding that they have pressures outside of work is important.
If you don't have it one-on-one with every single one of your employees, you need one. It's so important to make sure that that one-on-one 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: ‘What do you have for me?’ Not as having to report in, but more ‘How can I help?’ When I have a one-on-one with my boss, he generally asks me right away, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ I don't always have something for him, but that's fine. He's not expecting anything. And he doesn't make me feel bad when I say, ‘I don't really have anything’ or ‘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. When you're in an office physically, this is easy because you could just swing by someone's desk and say, ‘Hey, can I grab you a coffee? Do you have a second?’ One of the most powerful things that some of my managers did when I was at the New York Times was just swing by and say, ‘Hey, let's go grab a coffee.’ And by ‘let's grab a coffee,’ we didn't mean go to the cafe, get a coffee, sit down, drink the coffee and talk, and then come back to my desk. It was literally, ‘Come with me, I'll buy you a coffee and we'll take the elevator up. We'll chit chat and we'll take the elevator back down, and you'll sit back at your desk and go back to work.’ It's a simple, ‘Hey, I'm here, 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. And you're not just important to the company, you're important to me and my success, just as much as I hope I'm important to your success.’ That messaging is so important.
How would you adapt that for remote and hybrid work?
One thing my boss is doing that I hated at first but am growing to love is the old Slack huddle. It's a super quick voice call. He's like, ‘I want to normalize having these little Slack huddles,’ because it's the closest thing to talking to somebody as you can get when you're remote, that doesn't have the weight of setting up a Zoom or setting up a video call. The more that managers are capable of having those kinds of human conversations with their teams, it allows them to feel a sense of personal freedom and agency in their jobs that previously no worker generally felt like they had.
We would go to bed the night before terrified that we had a meeting with our boss in the morning. And usually, our boss is going to bed that same night being like, ‘I have a meeting with my employee in the morning, I didn't prepare,’ and it's really not a big deal, if they're thinking about it at all. So understanding that power dynamic and doing even small things to break it down helps a lot. Especially in remote environments, because we're so disconnected from each other that even a small thing like an email feels more serious than a Slack message, which also feels urgent because it comes in right now. Breaking down that sense of urgency or that sense of importance and saying, ‘It's okay for us to communicate routinely’ is really, really good.
What are some best practices there in terms of effectively communicating when something is urgent versus when something isn't, in a way that helps employees, and especially marginalized employees, better protect their time and set boundaries around their work?
I am a big fan of ‘schedule send’ in Gmail. Every email program does this. ‘Schedule send’ is the key, to me, to keeping a tidy inbox, but it is also key to helping other people prioritize their work. When I finish working on someone's edits and I need to send it back to them for review, I'll schedule-send it for the beginning of their day. If I'm working at 7:00 pm, I'm not going to send it to them at 7:00 pm because I don't want them to think that they have to look at it at 7:00 pm. I'll schedule-send it for 9:00 am, 10:00 am the next day, and then they can look at it whenever they have time.
It’s important, especially in an age of instant, always-on communication, that managers understand that the power dynamic involved with communicating with somebody instantly also implies that they need to respond or handle something instantly. We can make up for the technological design of that by adding some human framing around it. My boss sends me Slack messages that he will preface with ‘scheduled send’ in big, bold letters. So it comes in at 9:00 am and I see it on my phone and I see scheduled send and I'm like, ‘Okay, he was thinking this last night, he sent it to me this morning–not so I can jump on it at 9:00 am, but so I see it at the top of my day.’ And that helps me out a lot. Taking advantage of those tools that allow us to set importance without setting urgency are really, really useful.
Of course there are times when you do want to be urgent, and in those situations, instant text messages and Slack and DMs are critical. Right. But when you don't need it, don't do it. Also, clearly communicate your expectations. That's another super important thing that managers often don't do, because we like to think that our expectations are clear all the time and they literally never are. So actually saying, ‘Hey, I'm sending this to you now, let me know what you think by the end of the day’ is super helpful. Saying, ‘Let me know what you think by the end of the week,’ or even better, asking, ‘Can you get back to me tomorrow letting me know when you'll be able to work on it?’
And how can those clear communications around timing affect someone's ability to get that ‘glamour work’ that you wrote about?
When you're talking to multiple people, I think it's important to set as much time as you can to allow everybody to get involved and allow everybody to weigh in. When I was at Lifehacker, I used to tell people how important the Scotty principle is, like Scotty from Star Trek. He’ll be like, ‘I can have this done in six hours, knowing full well that the captain's going to be like, ‘Get it done in three.’ And it sounds incredible and impossible, but Scotty knows he can get it done in three hours, and he says six because he's expecting to be told three.
When you engage with your team, tell them, ‘Can you get back to me by the end of the day tomorrow?’ when you know that you have to give that same deliverable back to your manager the day after tomorrow. That gives you the extra time for your team to respond, and then for you to do your due diligence and go around to other people and say, ‘I notice you've been doing all the office housework. Maybe you'd like an opportunity to jump in on this glamour project.’ Build in time for you to go to your employees and ask them how they can contribute, especially if you have people on your team who feel marginalized already. You now have the time to go to them and say, ‘Hey, what would it take to get you to get your name on this presentation? What would it take to send you to this conference?’
What would a system to assign work more fairly look like, beyond building in this extra time to make sure that everybody has a chance to jump in?
For the housework that no one wants to do that needs to get done for the team, everybody should have to chip into that. Every single person, not just the person who volunteers, not just the person who wants to help out, not the new person who wants to prove themselves. Everyone should schedule meetings. 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. You can easily say, ‘Jim, you booked the conference room last week, so Jenny, it's your turn to book the conference room this week.’ When your team is used to you saying that, our team will naturally be used to you saying, ‘Jim, you went to the professional conference last year. Jenny, it's your turn to go to the professional conference and meet some people or give a presentation about what our company does.’ That gives everybody an opportunity to do the glamour work.
At the New York Times, one of the things that defined this for me was the difference between the people who had to book conference rooms and schedule meetings, and the people who got to do the audience-facing stuff, like our team newsletter that went out to 75,000 readers. One person ran that newsletter, and he would regularly push back on anyone else who ever wanted to get involved. Our manager could have easily stepped in and said, ‘Wait a minute. That is work that is the face of our organization, and is very career-lifting work. Everyone on the team should have the opportunity to do that.’
And they just didn't. But meanwhile, the housework generally fell to the same few people. That is not something that gets disrupted on an employee level if employees don't have the power or the safety to go to that person who's running the newsletter and say, ‘Hey, stop it. I want a turn.’ A manager does, and a manager should feel empowered to do that.
Do you have a favorite system for fairly distributing that housework?
I love a rotating calendar. I love making a long list of everybody's names and putting them on like a weekly calendar and saying, ‘This is your week.’ That person may hate it that week, but then they also understand that that week is going to be over, and then it will be someone else's turn and they don't have to deal with it anymore. I don't necessarily love a randomizer. Because it's random, It doesn't distribute that work fairly. A randomizer may choose the same person two weeks in a row and that sucks. But I love a rotation in general. I love a rotation that involves a manager, because oftentimes we as managers are like, ‘Whew, finally, we're above that crap,’ and it shows our teams a good bit of humanity when we say ‘I'm really not. I'm here with you.’
How do you make sure that you have a full sense of what that busy work is, and that you're understanding the full time commitment and effort of all those tasks?
Doing some of it yourself is really important, because then you understand exactly how much time it takes out of your day. You can empathize with your team and say, ‘If I'm booked wall to wall and I have to carve out time between these two meetings to schedule this thing, then my team is probably trying to crank out their work and they have to do the same thing.’ Having that level of understanding and getting in the trenches with them helps a lot. I don't think enough managers do it. Of course we all have our own trenches. We all report to someone else. Right. But reminding your team, reminding your employees ‘I'm here with you’ helps a lot.
How can teams audit their own productivity systems and workflows to be more equitable?
I was working at Lifehacker for five years, and the entire site traded in ways to do things better and get things done. We encourage that constant evaluation of how you're doing things and wondering whether you can do things better. And I think that that's important, but it's just as important to find something that works for you and to stick with it until you find a need to change. Or on work teams, finding some method that works for your team and sticking with it until you notice a problem.
One common complaint on a lot of teams is that the managers change things up too quickly. An employee has no understanding of what their expectations are at work, because things change too often. I would tell most managers to slow down a little bit: When you find a system that works, stick with it. But also keep an eye on your team's performance and your team's engagement, because if that system works, but someone's being left behind, that is usually a sign that they are either starting to be or already are marginalized by the way that you're doing things. That's when you engage the person first and say, ‘Hey, we've been doing this. Is that working for you? Because I see that you're not participating, or you're not picking up assignments, or you generally feel like you're not a part of the team.’
Having those conversations is the first step. If that person is not engaged for a reason that is systemic, then you can go back to the board and say, ‘How can we rework this system to pull them in, rather than keep them out?’ However, there may equally be a reason that they're not engaged that is not systemic. Maybe they're not engaged because they don't have a tool to do the job that would make it easier for them. Or they don't have access to something that everyone else has access to. That's something you can fix very easily, and it's really quick.
It's really important for managers to understand that just because someone is on the outside looking in doesn't mean that the system is bad. It might just mean that they don't have a way in. They don't see the door. Sometimes it's about giving them the door. When I was at the time, just as another example, for a long time, the reason why I wasn't commissioning and editing stories wasn't because I didn't know how. It wasn't because I didn't want to. It was because no one had given me access to the freelance system where I could bring writers in and get them paid for their work.
So as soon as I had that conversation with my manager, she was like, ‘Wait, no one gave you access to that? That's ridiculous.’ And she set me up that afternoon. And the next week I was up and running, but this was like several months after I had started this job where that was what I was supposed to be doing.
In cases like that, where an employee doesn't know what they don't know in terms of what they should be asking for, what can the manager do to get a sense of that situation?
I think we all have some innate understanding of when someone is excluded for stupid reasons. But too often managers jump to, ‘That person doesn't want to do their job,’ or ‘That person needs to be put on a performance improvement plan’ or something like that. We think that they don't want to work, when more often than not, it is that this person doesn't know how to do their job effectively, so they either aren't doing anything or they've given up.
It depends on how long that person has been disengaged. People who are newly disengaged are like, ‘I don't know what to do. I'm so confused,’ and confusion very quickly gives away to hopelessness. It's on us managers to watch that behavior and notice it and catch it when it is confusion, before it gives away to hopelessness, because hopelessness turns into a flight risk. That person will leave to another organization that may put them in the same position later, but at the very least during the honeymoon period will make them feel welcome and give them the world.
You talk in your book about the importance for marginalized workers of being able to manage up effectively. What are some things that managers can do to make themselves more easily managed?
I think that it speaks to a key competency that every manager should have, which is clearly laying out what their priorities are for their team, and also explaining to their team that part of their job as a manager is to help them with their priorities. I had a CIO when I was still working in IT, who I turned to him and said, Hey, I have X, Y, Z to work on, which one should I work on first? What's most important?’ He turned around to me and he smiled and he said, ‘They're all important.’ And I love that guy, but that was the worst possible answer. They can't all be important. My guy, which one do I work on today?
Managers should be able to turn around and say, ‘Here are my priorities. Here's my vision.’ Vision is such a fluffy term, but it needs to come in terms of concrete: ‘Here are the things that I want our team to do this month, this quarter, this year. They may be subject to change. I'm not going to lock us into it. Priorities may change, winds blow down from the top, and we may shift, but as long as you understand the things that are most important to me and our team, then you will be able to prioritize your own work in a way that it lines up with what those priorities are.’
That's important for employees to hear, because they get deluged with all kinds of work, and they can say, ‘If this thing matters to my team, because my boss has clearly said these are my team's priorities, then I will work on that thing first.’ Be ready to back up your team if they run into trouble in that regard. If your team deals with lots of other people, sometimes someone may not like their thing being shoved to the back burner. I mean, great, but it's not one of my team's priorities. And if you make the case to me that it is a team priority, then we'll revisit. But right now my employee is right. This needs to go on the back burner because we're working on this other thing that is more urgent.
To have you connect the dots really explicitly: Why is that knowledge of priorities especially important for marginalized workers?
When you are marginalized, you are the last one to hear about everything. You are the last one to hear about what those priorities are. You are the last one to be engaged on the kind of work that matters the most to your team and will advance your career, right. You're being pushed to the side specifically so you can do that low-level work or worse.
The employees that are good at managing up are generally, by and large, the privileged ones. Marginalized employees, for a variety of reasons, are usually socialized to be more timid about being assertive about the work that they do. For marginalized workers, it's really important to be clear about what those priorities are. It’s also equally important to back them up, so they get to do the kind of work that matters not just to you, but to the team and to the company, and gets recognized in awards and gets recognized at the company conference and will get them lined up for a promotion. Whereas if they were doing the office housework or the low-priority work, if that work slid down to the marginalized employee, they would just keep doing it without ever seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Being clear as a manager to your team gives that window of opportunity to your marginalized employees in an outsized way, which is critical.
Everything that we've talked about depends on a manager having self-awareness and a willingness to take a critical eye to these team systems and workflows. What's the best way to cultivate that self-awareness, or for employees to spark it in the people who manage them?
Therapy, for one. But more seriously, I don't want to say, ‘Be friends with more workers,’ because I don't want to pretend that the best managers are people who are friends with their employees. I think that sometimes that's the case, but it's not universal. I do think that it's important for managers to remember what it's like to be someone who isn't a manager. Having that level of self-awareness, having that level of empathy, for the people who understand that everything rolls downhill to them—that builds camaraderie. It creates a dynamic where you and your team are in this together.
One popular saying from my old days working in IT was that everybody works for somebody. Even when you're in charge, you're not in charge. Try to remember that the kinds of things that you would complain to your peers about are very reminiscent of the kinds of things that your team are complaining to each other about. Remembering what that's like and showing a little humanity, showing a little empathy, will get you a long way with the people that you have to manage as well.
A lot of the book is very, is targeted towards workers, what they can do to empower themselves. But ideally, the person reading the book will eventually become a leader at some point, because they took these steps or they moved their career forward. When I became editor-in-chief, I looked at all these people who were my peers, like, a month ago, and now I'm in charge of leading them. I was mortified. I was terrified of that promotion. It came with a great title and a huge pay bump, which I was very grateful for, but at the same time, I'm scared because now these people are my responsibility. It’s not just, Wow. I'm in charge. I get to do what I want.’ It is, ‘These people's lives and livelihoods depend on me making the right choices.’ And I feel like a lot of leaders lose sight of the fact that these are human beings behind them that are hoping that you don't have to lay them off.