I am privileged to be a white, straight-passing man in the workplace. I’ve never had issues having coworkers or managers listen to me or straight up steal credit for my ideas right in front of me. I have also been very fortunate to have had a number of women in my life that have impacted me in a significant way, from family to coworkers and supervisors. This is yet another call and reminder to privileged colleagues to elavate the voices of our less privileged colleagues - our teammates, coworkers, even supervisors in some cases, that don’t fall into the “norm” of our workplaces. These can include, but are not limited to, colleagues with identities other than cis male, colleagues of marginalized races, colleagues of the broader LGBTQA+ community, colleagues with disabilities, and colleagues with beliefs other than the assumed default.*
Let me preface this with another warning that I am not an expert, I’m just a teammate that would like to be as supportive as possible. If there are any tips that any readers have that should be included let me know so that I can add them!
The aim with this post is to highlight ways for us to support each other as teammates and colleagues and to try to spot the ways we may subtley slight each other in the workplace. In other words, this is not discussing the overt sexist, racist, ableist, etc., events that happen in some workplaces. Obviously we need to stand up for each other when we see these things happening in front of us and demand corrective action when it happens. We need to believe victims and support them. We need to share details amongst ourselves regarding those behind-closed-doors reviews that systemically target our mnarginalized comrades. But I am even less of an expert in those matters because I have been lucky enough to work in organizations where I have not personally witnessed or heard of these situations. This is not to disregard these events but I can’t speak to those as well.
A final word of preface. Many of these ideas are not my own, they have been borrowed and aggregated from others. In particular, several years ago at a previous employer we had a presentation for being an ally to women in the workplace from Karen Catlin, and the suggestions absolutely generalize to other groups.
Being a Supportive Teammate
There are a lot of ways that the privileged among us do not realize we squash voices outside the norm around us. Let’s just dive in and look at some things we can do to be better.
Here are a few ways to make meetings healthier and more effective.
Rotate roles in meetings
It’s common for teams to make teammates with identities other than cis male “minute recorders” or “ticket loggers”. When this is the pattern suggest to your team that you rotate roles in your meetings every meeting, once a week, once a sprint, or however works for your team. If that doesn’t work bite the bullet and split the role with that teammate, although obviously this is less useful.
This pattern of having a single teammate handle these tasks singles them out as just a “secretary” of the team, and reduces their role in the team. For that reason alone we should discourage this behavior. Organizations should in general discourage this behavior because it also reduces the likelihood that the “recorder” or “logger” will contribute in other ways to the meeting. They are silenced by being given extra time consuming and mindless tasks and are not given the chance to meaningfully contribute as a full fledged team member. This reduction of their status on the team directly impacts the effectiveness of the team - surely this person was hired to contribute and not sit silently in meetings.
Our colleagues outside the norm may unfortunately be accustomed to being spoken over. Imagine that being a regular occurance at work. Doesn’t that sound miserable and exhausting? When you see this happen make sure to ask them what they were trying to say before moving on in the meeting. If you have a teammate that does this frequently try speaking to them directly one-on-one so that they are aware - some people do not even notice they do this. If that doesn’t work mention to a team lead that it is something that your teammate and team should work on. This open communication is important, and may be awkward at first, but constructive criticism is important to better each other as colleagues and allies.
Worse than being spoken over is when one colleague openly steals credit for an idea from another in a meeting. When you see this happen make sure to acknowledge the appropriate teammate publicly so that your team knows that your teammate is significant and hopefully help that teammate feel valued.
Tools like slack and teams are critical for communication amongst a team, especially right now. It is easy, however, to incidentally exclude teammates using these tools. The common way I’ve seen this is to rely on direct messages rather than using a team channel for discussing and collaborating on tasks.
The issue with using DMs is that it entirely excludes teammates who otherwise may have had meaningful contribution to the discussion if they were able to overhear" it. It’s OK to @ your teammate in your team channel and have a thread regarding the issue - this is similar to collaborating in a shared team work space. This at least allows everyone to see that the discussion is ongoing and if they have additional incite they can easily jump in and add to it.
DMs should be avoided in most cases in general. They exclude teammates, they conceal work being done and contributors to that work, and they can conceal actual issues. How often are production issues brought up to a specific person rather than that team or a more appropriate channel? The time spent troubleshooting in DMs is better spent troubleshooting in public to bring awareness of issues. When someone DMs for work related topics try moving the conversation to the appropriate location.
This one is a bit different than the others. Clearly we’re not necessarily friends with all of our teammates nor do we always share each others interests. However, it is always positive to expand an invite to a break time activity or lunch to the rest of your team when a few of you are slipping away from the desk for a bit. Personally, I love foosball and table tennis. The table size may be limited but its easy to rotate players between games and invite more people than can play at once. In general, just try to be inclusive of team mates even when you don’t necessarily speak with them all the time.
Whenever you find yourself at a conference, meet up, or similar event, check and adjust your assumptions. Folx you meet there are probably your colleagues. In other words, they are probably not employees of the venue, caterers, recruiters, or HR people (unless the event is related to one of these things). These are your peers that are there for the same reasons you are: to learn, to network, to better themselves, etc. Treat them like the peer and colleague that they are and definitely do not assume that they are there for another purpose.
This is far from an exhaustive list of methodologies to being an ally in the workspace. Hopefully this gets the juices flowing on things you may or may not have noticed before and things you and your team can do better. We should always be striving to learning more and doing better by our colleagues.
Again, if there are more ideas to add to this list or things that are incorrect that should be fixed let me know and I’ll include those in this post!
* This sentence took me a much longer time to write than expected. I’m always trying to learn and understand, and I am almost completely certain that I’ve missed some marginalized groups that should be highlighted here. If you see some groups that you feel should be included definitely contact me and I can update this list! If you feel that I’ve used incorrect terminology here or anywhere please let me know so I can remain informed and edit this post accordingly!
** Added 12/10/2020. This is a great topic that Catlin discusses in her presentation that I somehow failed to include in this post originally.