- Concrete Examples
- For Beginners
Have you ever been marginalized, stereotyped or sexually harassed in the workplace? Software engineer Erica Joy Baker has. As she recalls her painful experiences, she offers general principles to companies that wish to foster an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging to all employees in the workplace. In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Baker’s relatable, moving presentation offers useful pointers to HR personnel and anyone committed to creating psychologically safe workplaces.
- Many minority workers feel marginalized at work every day.
- Achieving peak performance is impossible when faced with such workplace anxiety.
- Psychologically safe work environments can optimize performance.
- Leaders and employees must collaborate to remove the obstacles minority workers face at work.
Many minority workers feel marginalized at work every day.
Software engineer Erica Joy Baker loves playing poker. When she learned her co-workers ran an after-work poker game, she was excited to attend. However, the buzz of laughter and chatting that she overheard as she approached the conference room immediately quelled upon her arrival and never resumed. Baker felt like an unwanted outsider among her co-workers. She became crippled with anxiety, which made it impossible for her to play at her best, so she left. This was just a poker game, but many members of underrepresented groups undergo acute anxiety associated with being “the other” at work every day. While most employees show up to the office stewing about whether they can make an impact or accomplish their career goals, minority workers carry additional concerns about whether they will be stereotyped, fairly compensated or harassed at work.
Achieving peak performance is impossible when faced with such workplace anxiety.
During her two-decade career in the tech industry, Baker has often been the only black person in an office of hundreds. She has experienced stereotyping, sexual harassment and humiliation. On multiple occasions, Baker has had to explain to her peers and her superiors that she isn’t a member of the security crew or cleaning team. Such episodes made her increasingly anxious, until one day she felt she could no longer give her best. When Baker had taken all she could bear, she shared her story in 2014. She was horrified to learn that her experience wasn’t unique. Her deep anxiety was common among minority workers.
“You can empower the people in your companies, in your teams, to perform their best…All it takes is a little understanding and some action to remove the overhead of being ‘the other’ for those folks.”
Employees can’t survive – let alone excel – under such conditions. Those who are treated as outsiders essentially work two jobs: They do the job for which they were hired, but they expend just as much energy overcoming the anxiety of being perceived as outcasts, a feat that requires massive reserves of mental strength.
Psychologically safe work environments can optimize performance.
As a manager, Baker realizes the importance of building psychologically safe work environments that allow all employees to flourish. Conventional wisdom discourages displays of emotion in the workplace. But some emotions are essential to fuel change. At some point or another, everyone has felt like a pariah. Recall a time when you were the only one, the outcast, “the other.” Tap into those raw emotions. Remember how downtrodden that experience made you feel, and be aware that some of your colleagues may come to work feeling similarly crushed every day.
Leaders and employees must collaborate to remove the obstacles minority workers face at work.
Baker once had a manager who saw her as a person, recognized her talent, pushed her past her limits and trusted her to succeed when others overlooked her. Those actions lifted her anxiety and gave her a chance to exhibit her best work, reach her potential and earn a promotion.
“If we are empathetic in our understanding of the anxiety gap that underrepresented minorities face in the workplace every day, we can build environments that are psychologically safe and that remove stress, so that our co-workers, our teammates, can come in every day and be happy and be productive and thrive.”
Leaders who try to understand the obstacles minority workers face can lower those barriers. For example, if employees fear they are unfairly compensated, release your company’s salary scale. Or if staff members are afraid to report incidents of sexual harassment, design a reporting protocol that removes all possibility for retribution. Anyone can contribute and speak up for underrepresented people, who shouldn’t have to bear the burden alone. Everyone can be “an ally and an advocate and an accomplice.”
About the Speaker
Erica Joy Baker is a senior engineering manager at Patreon, a crowdfunding company, where she leads the infrastructure team.
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