You’re a leader committed to making diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) part of your organization’s DNA. But are you unknowingly placing an unintended burden on key staff in the process?
As a leader, you’re creating or nurturing teams with diverse identities, backgrounds and experiences. You want to ensure that they can bring their authentic selves to work and feel a genuine sense of belonging. You know that your visible support and involvement are essential to turning that aspiration into reality. You also understand that employee involvement helps fuel that culture of belonging. That’s why you invite staffers — especially those who have been traditionally underrepresented — into the planning, advising and execution of your DEI-related efforts.
And that takes me to this month’s advice for you — to keep you from making a too-common mistake: Asking staff members to do invisible work.
BEWARE OF INVISIBLE WORK
It can happen when leaders ask women, people of color, those who identify as LGBTQ or persons with disabilities to take on additional responsibilities like these:
- Serve on the organization’s diversity council
- Lead an employee resource group (ERG)
- Be part of workplace task forces of all kinds to ensure they contain diverse voices
- Do a sensitivity read to prevent inaccurate or hurtful language in workplace materials
- Provide translation help for colleagues or customers
- Pitch in with employee recruiting
- Coach, mentor or onboard other employees
- Represent the organization in the community
You may have the best of intentions in making these requests — to ensure that diverse insights guide change and that power and influence are more widely distributed. But here’s the challenge: You may be exhausting the very people you think you’re empowering if their inclusivity work becomes invisible work. It happens when the employees are expected to do those special assignments while fulfilling all their everyday roles and responsibilities. It happens when their extra efforts aren’t afforded value and recognition in employee evaluations, and it isn’t rewarded or compensated.
And here’s a hard truth: Invisible work doesn’t just demand time and intellectual contributions; there’s significant emotional labor involved. People doing DEI work often find themselves sharing personal experiences of harassment, discrimination or incivility to help others understand those harsh realities. They address historic or current injustice and inequity. They also must deal with ignorance, apathy — even hate — and find the words and the will to keep going.
These staff members may have been asked to do this same work many times before, only to see little or no change. They may have felt unsupported by supervisors or colleagues who saw their DEI work as extracurricular or even worse, unimportant.
Because I teach in programs for emerging leaders, I hear these stories. I recall one participant of color telling me how he struggled when getting DEI-related requests at work. His default reply had always been to say “yes,” but he was getting worn down by the amount of time and energy it required. If he declined, might it appear that he didn’t care? Could it be held against him? Would he hold back progress? He was very torn and very tired.
HOW TO AVOID ASSIGNING INVISIBLE WORK
As a leader, you have the power to make things better. Here are some tips.
Stay committed to diversity — and agency. When people have agency, it means they have the power to choose what action to take. Let your employees know they are free to accept, decline or negotiate the parameters of the DEI responsibilities you ask of them. Make sure there’s no downside to taking a pass and lots of upside to signing on.
Coordinate the work. Confirm that everyone in the organization, especially supervisors, is in the loop about DEI assignments. Create time and space for the work to happen. Ensure that workloads are adjusted to account for the additional duties.
See to it that the work doesn’t get in the way of other advancement opportunities. If there’s a hot new project that can help elevate someone’s career, don’t bypass them because they’re busy contributing to DEI efforts. That would be the ultimate injustice.
Widen the pool of DEI helpers. The voices of traditionally underrepresented staff are very important, but there are many other colleagues of goodwill who want to help. They may be people who have always been in the majority at work and are eager to be allies to others. Open the door to their learning and involvement.
Put the work on the record. If your performance evaluation standards don’t explicitly include the contributions of DEI work, it’s time to update them. The business benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion are well established. Since employees help build value in their organizations through DEI efforts, such work should be documented and celebrated in performance reviews.
Reward the work. Positive performance reviews are great, but some organizations are doing more. They’re compensating DEI work. LinkedIn and others have examined the workload and impact of their ERG leaders and are paying them an additional yearly stipend. How might you create tangible benefits for your team members? Here’s something that costs you nothing, suggested to me by a bilingual manager who’s often asked at work to help translate materials from English into Spanish: If you couldn’t create a message or document without their help, make sure both the author of the work and the translator are given credit.
Stay connected. Check in often with those great folks who are your DEI champions to see how they’re doing. Do they want you to be part of an initiative? Make a cameo appearance at a meeting? Remove an obstacle? Just listen and give them encouragement? You can be the reason their work is never invisible — and they always feel seen.