3 Ways Structural Racism Could Be Hurting You at Work—and How to Navigate Them

3 Ways Structural Racism Could Be Hurting You at Work—and How to Navigate Them was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

I thought it was a good meeting. Productive. Engaging. Kinetic. Crammed in a windowless conference room with fifteen of my colleagues and my dog to boot, we reshaped a proposed idea into a fully fleshed-out project plan by identifying its pitfalls, developing solutions to address those pitfalls, reviewing the idea for new pitfalls, creating new solutions, and repeating the process until it felt right. All this work in less than two hours? I would definitely count that as a good meeting.

But even before I’d had a chance to refill my coffee mug, my manager, who was also an executive at the company, unexpectedly pulled me into a one-on-one meeting. In my experience, 10 times out of 10, this kind of encounter doesn’t end well.

“How do you think the meeting went?” she asked. I laughed. According to my therapist, laughing is my default reaction to acute stress, but I think I was also buying time to prepare myself to withstand the reprimand headed my way.

My manager advised me to be “more agreeable” in meetings and said that if I asked fewer questions I would benefit from “giving people a win.” Given my role working on diversity, equity, and inclusion practices at the company, I pointed out that her feedback was “unnervingly consistent with how women of color, Black women especially, are treated in the workplace.” I was indirect, but clear—a tactic too many of us in white-dominant workplaces must use to defend ourselves and protect our careers at the same time. But even my watered-down response landed too strong. She proceeded to tell me that I “shouldn’t play the race card” and that raising race as a factor made her feel “unsafe” being my manager.

Like I said, 10 times out of 10. I knew in that moment that I would never be able to grow my career at that company. I also knew that although what I’d just experienced was devastating, it was no different than what any other person of color may face in their job at another company or in another industry on a regular basis. Too many of us know what it feels like to mentally strategize about whether any particular incident tipped the balance enough for us to finally leave.

Resources abound on how to identify everyday microaggressions, what to do when they happen to us, and how our white colleagues can communicate with us without inflicting them. They explain to our colleagues not to touch our hair, ask where we are really from, unsolicitedly share ancestry results with us, or compliment us on how impressive our English is. Despite the wealth of information available, racial microaggressions at work remain frequent and toxic. They can push us out of their jobs, stymie our careers, and compromise our mental well-being. I know this. You know this.

But we also know that microaggressions are a symptom of cultural racism, not its source. Microaggressions are racist, yes, but do not represent all the ways racism shows up in our workplaces on a daily basis. So talking about microaggressions and interpersonal communication alone, while critical to our mental health and career progression as people of color, will not yield the transformative change we actually need.

“We have to get beyond focusing just on microaggressions to looking at systems,” says Heidi Schillinger, Founder and Principal of Equity Matters, a Seattle-based firm providing training and consulting services around diversity, cultural competence, and equity. “We need to start thinking about all the ways most organizations in this country function as monoculturally white. So when we think about best practices, strategies, data, qualifications, professionalism, marketing, office setup, decor, food, and more, we need to see them as culturally white best practices, culturally white strategies, culturally white data, culturally white qualifications, and culturally white professionalism,” she says. “This is systemic racialized power.”

Ending racism should not be our burden to bear. But as people of color, solving a problem we did not create feels like an impossibility and an inevitability all at the same time. “The frustrating truth is that as people of color, we are frequently forced to choose between being right and being effective when responding to racism in the workplace,” says Yejin Lee, a New York-based career coach. Whether we choose to actively speak out against the system or stealthily strategize our own next career moves, we must recognize how structural racism is built into our everyday work experiences and take action to survive professionally.

Here are some key examples of how structural racism shows up at work and how to manage it:

1. Stifled Professional Development and Career Advancement

A friend recently told me about how her immediate manager removed her from the project team right after my friend’s recommendation for a new product launch was enthusiastically praised and accepted by a senior team leader. Her story is not uncommon.

Despite Black women being the most educated demographic in the United States, they still experience the greatest levels of discrimination at work. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2019 report, 42% of Black women reported having to provide more evidence of their competence at work than others do, compared to 16% of all men in the survey. Moments like these compound and can cause real damage to our career progression. Black women and men alike are vastly underrepresented in executive and managerial roles in the U.S., according to the Center for Talent Innovation’s report on “Being Black in Corporate America,” which also found that 19% of Black professionals felt someone of their race would never get a top position in their company.

If you’re losing out on promotions, aren’t being considered for deserved assignments, or are getting negative performance reviews—and you feel like it is potentially influenced by racial bias—here are a few steps you can take:

Gather Your Receipts

“Data does not lie,” says Keita Williams, Founder and Chief Strategist of Success Bully. Gather any records you may have to defend your work. This includes your job description, previous performance review results, and any other document that clearly outlines the agreed-upon expectations for your role and how you’ve tracked against them. “Make it a priority to show in no uncertain terms that you exceeded expectations,” Williams says. Dig through your inbox and instant messages for feedback you previously received from other colleagues. These testimonials serve as evidence of the impact of your work and social proof that may persuade your manager or team lead to reconsider an unfair assessment.

Start Documenting

If documentation isn’t currently part of your practice, start now. “As soon as you become part of an organization, you need to start documenting immediately,” says Kimiko Garraway, a New York-based human resources strategist. Keep a running log with notes on microaggressions you’ve experienced, feedback you’ve received, and instances when you’ve been passed over for assignments or kept out of meetings.

Too often as people of color, we are socialized to feel lucky to be where we are, but even from the interview process, Garraway says “you must hold people accountable for the experiences they are offering to you.” Documentation is essential to that accountability. Keep it in a notebook or document that you store at home or on a personal device rather than in the office or on a company-owned device.

Leverage Your Relationships

Allies, mentors, and sponsors are vital for understanding the culture and spoken (and unspoken) norms at your company. You can pick their brains proactively to get a sense of what’s expected and how best to influence your managers, team leaders, and peers. And you can turn to them in moments of crisis for advice on what to say, which buttons to push, and which key advocates on your team can influence the project, team, or manager you’re struggling with.

If you don’t have a strong internal network already in place, seek advice from peers and more senior colleagues you have in the industry, but be wary of divulging too much information that may compromise nondisclosure agreements or reflect on you poorly.

Also, note for the future that networking, building genuine relationships, and forming a diverse coalition of colleagues in terms of demographic, expertise, and tenure helps increase your social capital within your company and industry. That’s all to say that you should always be thinking about growing and cultivating your network—before you need it.

2. Inequitable Compensation Practices

If you’ve learned that a colleague—particularly one in the same or a similar role or one who’s in a more junior position—makes more than you without a clear justification, you would not be the first. Pay parity for women in the workplace has been discussed so much that we even have a special day for it. And the story is even worse when you disaggregate compensation data by race: While white women make $0.79 on the dollar compared to men, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women earn $0.62, $0.57, and $0.54 on the dollar, respectively, compared to men. Pay inequities also exist for men of color, according to PayScale. Black men, for example, earn $0.87 for every dollar earned by a white man.

It can be incredibly distressing to learn that a peer may be making more than you for doing an equivalent job. Before taking any action, first consider your source to ensure that what you learned is trustworthy. Then consider taking one of the following steps:

Speak Directly With Your Manager

Schedule time with your manager, clearly stating that you’d like to discuss compensation. This minimizes the chance they’d feel overwhelmingly defensive or caught off guard. It also gives time for them to compile any resources they need to support your conversation. Garraway suggests sharing something along the lines of the following: “I want to make sure compensation packages and opportunities are fair on our team, but I’m not sure that’s where we are right now.”

Your goal here is understanding pay structure to see where you fit in and get information you can later use to advocate for yourself; the specific pay gap you suspect or the name of the person(s) who’s earning more than you is not important and distracts from your goal. To keep the conversation on track, come prepared with your questions and strategies to stay on topic. For example, if your manager asks you what you heard, you can refocus with a statement like: “I understand wanting to dig deeper into the particulars here, but I think focusing on how value is measured and compensated is at the core of my concerns about how I am paid relative to my colleagues.”

Prepare to also ask about the next natural opportunity for corrective action on your pay discrepancy (raise or promotion cycles) or whether an off-schedule adjustment would be possible.

Connect With Your Human Resources Representative

Some managers may be inexperienced navigating concerns on pay parity and might find the conversation challenging. If you’re uncomfortable speaking with your manager or your conversation with your manager does not provide a satisfactory explanation or plausible next steps, consider seeking support from your human resources representative.

Remember that in most situations, HR can’t disclose details about another individual’s compensation package. They can, however, share the company’s overall compensation approach, results of compensation studies, and anything else that might provide more context to your situation. To help you gain a better understanding of any pay differences and how you might be able to address your pay parity concerns, try asking questions like:

  • How is starting pay determined? Merit increases? Promotional pay? Are there other factors that may lead to a higher starting pay or disproportionate pay increases?
  • How does the company evaluate pay parity? What demographics are used?
  • How often are pay decisions internally and externally audited?
  • Can you share what the pay bands are at this level? What factors determine where someone sits across the pay band?
  • What should I do if I feel like I’m being compensated unfairly?
  • What happens next if I have credible information about a potential pay disparity?
  • What steps would be taken if there is evidence of a discrepancy in compensation packages?

“Every company should have some type of grievance procedure,” Garraway says, whether you’re experiencing pay or other forms of discrimination or harassment. But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean following it will get the results you hope for and it doesn’t mean you won’t experience retaliation for escalating issues to human resources. Reach back out to HR if you feel like you are being retaliated against. And again, remember that documentation is paramount and strengthens your case, whether you’re going through HR or seeking legal recourse.

Be Transparent About Your Own Pay

Secrecy around pay privileges people with access, power, and influence, as well as those taught to play the salary negotiation game. Race plays a huge role in disadvantaging Black job seekers in compensation negotiation situations. It’s hard to advocate for yourself if you don’t have any information about what you should be earning.

“Talk about compensation,” advises Madison Butler, Vice President of People and Culture at Sourced Craft Cocktails. “Scream about it. It is OK to find out what others make. Know your market value at all times and check on it every 90 days.” Sharing compensation packages with each other, particularly among communities of color and white allies, ensures we have the information to help us get the pay that we deserve.

Advocate for Pay Transparency Policies

A conversation with your manager or HR department may or may not yield the result you wanted. Either way, you can use your experience to advocate for bigger change within your company.

“What if companies were transparent on salary packages to ensure equity, instead of placing the burden on people of color to negotiate?” says Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno, the Founder and CEO of Future for Us, a community and career platform for women of color professionals. It could look like large corporations such as Salesforce and much smaller, local companies like Seattle-based Molly Moon’s Ice Cream, both of which are investing time and money to close pay inequity by increasing pay transparency.

If you choose to advocate for pay transparency within your company, look to organizations that are already doing it to help push for policies that may be right for your company. Identify key influencers, leaders, employee resource groups, diversity and inclusion departments, and decision-makers at various levels and start talking about what it would take to persuade your company to research, evaluate, and institute pay transparency policies and other pay equity solutions.

3. Inadequately Staffed or Underfunded Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that don’t have sufficient staff or financial resources behind them are harmful because they show that a company to some extent knows that there is an issue, but is unwilling to commit to real solutions to create the change they say they seek. Under-resourced DEI initiatives can also “create a false sense of safety,” Butler says, attracting employees of color to work at a company only to face an uphill climb to be seen and valued once they walk through the door.

This normalizes the expectation for us to perform within racist work environments and may force our hand to help lead these initiatives on top of our core job functions, in our desperation to survive. Ashley McGirt, a licensed mental health therapist and racial trauma specialist, knows what’s at stake when working in a toxic culture. “Chronic racial stress in the workplace can lead to both physical and emotional symptoms from difficulty sleeping, headaches, migraines, body aches, to anxiety, and even depression,“ McGirt says.

“For the most part, white people do not know how much labor it takes for people of color to carry the burden of experiencing, living with, and responding to all kinds of racism at their jobs,” says Lee, who works mostly with people of color in her career coaching practice. Even workplaces that do have initiatives to respond to racism may not be as effective as one would think. Often, Schillinger says, “staff of color in white organizations are tired and traumatized and tokenized by diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that center the comfort of whiteness and focus on white people so often we just try to survive, opt out, or burn out.”

If any or all of this sounds familiar, here are a few steps you can take:

Push Back Against Unwanted DEI-Related Work

When DEI initiatives are under-resourced, the work may fall disproportionately on one or a few people of color, often without compensation or meaningful recognition. If you find yourself unexpectedly “voluntold” to lead a company’s new diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative, and this is not something you want to do, you do have the option to say no. The same goes if you’re asked to be a sensitivity reader for company materials, to help source candidates of color for an open role, or to frequently represent the organization as a token person of color, particularly when it is outside of your job function.

“It’s OK to respectfully push back,” says Garraway. Remember that “the power to ensure the workforce is diverse does not rest with a person who is ‘the only.’” Encourage your company to look to experts internally and externally to lead the charge instead. If your company doesn’t already have a dedicated team for diversity and inclusion with a direct reporting line to your CEO, advocate to hire a consultant of color who can evaluate and develop recommendations that will meet your company’s goals. Try pushing back by saying something like this:

“Thank you so much for asking me to contribute here. Diversity and inclusion are vital to our company’s success. It’s important to me, and I know a key concern for our leadership. To be honest with you, developing diversity and inclusion initiatives—at the scale that we need—simply is not my expertise. This type of work is incredibly sensitive and starting off with a misstep could compromise the initiative. To ensure our diversity and inclusion initiatives are successful, I’d strongly recommend we bring someone in who can add these skills to our team. I’d be happy to help identify a few folks across the company who can onboard a consultant to our culture and the concerns we want to address.”

On the other hand, it’s also OK if you feel like DEI work could be an opportunity to pivot into a new role and gain new skills. Leverage it. Be sure that your work is compensated and recognized as part of your performance evaluations and keep a running record of your initiatives and key results. When it comes time for future promotions and pivots, this documentation can “show the value over and beyond your primary job function,” Williams says.

Find Your Community

“You need to find a place where you feel safe,” McGirt says. Joining an employee resource group (ERG)—sometimes called a business resource group (BRG) or affinity group—at your company can help you feel seen, heard, and valued. It can also help you gain access to more senior leaders or advocates across the company, which is crucial not only for career advancement but also if you decide you want to participate in pushing for organizational change. “Collective BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] power is paid attention to more by white structures,” Schillenger says. Building a network of employees of color can help you build that people power.

If there aren’t any formal groups, start your own in any form. It can be as simple as asking a few colleagues to an in-person or virtual coffee to get better acquainted and learn about one another’s work. Let it evolve from there. You can also look into existing groups for professionals of color in your industry, city, or region.

Invest in a Career Coach

Within my first week at a company I was recruited to join, I found out firsthand how far the company was from the racially diverse picture that was painted during the interview process. I was actively reprimanded in my first manager check-in to temper my approach to talking about race. Between my recruitment process and my first few weeks on the job, it felt like a bait and switch move. I was distraught. My career coach helped me reset my goals to plan to exit within nine months and also supported me on how to deal with my manager in the meantime.

The right career coach can guide you through really complex work situations. “I spend a lot of time guiding my clients of color in identifying and achieving their objectives in responding to workplace racism,” Lee says. If you find yourself in an unhealthy environment, investing in a career coach provides you with a skilled sounding board with an undivided focus on whatever it takes to best develop your career.

Move On

Sometimes it’s just time to go. “If there are no changes made after reaching out to leadership, it may be in the best interest of your physical and mental health to leave,” McGirt says. I left my surprise one-on-one meeting with my manager with a plan to resign—and a few months later, I did. I left a job I loved because I knew the discrimination I experienced there would limit my professional growth and career advancement. I made a personal decision for that alone to be reason enough.