Alan Henry has spent over 20 years writing about technology and productivity hacks for places like Lifehacker, The New York Times and Wired. But as a Black man, he realized he couldn’t lifehack his way out of being overlooked and excluded at work. So he wrote a guide to help others wade through office politics, get the plum assignments and achieve their career goals.
Henry’s new book, “Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized,” (out June 7) is partly a blunt critique of modern corporate America and how it’s failed so many working people and partly a guide to navigating this failed system to achieve some semblance of workplace success, even if your workplace isn’t set up for you to succeed.
Henry sat down with Protocol to talk about what managers can do to support their marginalized employees and create the kind of work environment that’s necessary for them to succeed.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
There’s often a perception within workplaces that it’s the marginalized person’s job to make things better: to be on the DEI committees, to be their own voice and the advocate. But often these people are the ones dealing with these issues and struggling to just keep themselves afloat.
In light of all of this, how do you convince the people who actually have the agency and the power that it’s their responsibility to make their workplaces more inclusive?
I’ll be completely honest: Sometimes there’s no convincing that person. I completely agree: It is never the responsibility of the marginalized person to resolve the systemic issues that are keeping them marginalized; they don’t have the power or agency to do it. But at the same time, I find that trying to convince privileged folks to do the work of allyship is difficult.
One thing I tell managers to do a lot is to make sure that your teams have that psychological safety, and there are ways to do that. But also, I tell managers to disrupt the patterns that they see on their teams, where the loudest person in the room is the one who always gets their ideas greenlit. Or they’re the ones who get the plum assignments, the office glamour work that I’ve talked about in the book. I encourage people to look around and see who’s doing the office housework, who’s doing the glamour work, and try to disrupt those systems. Because if you have one person doing all the glamour work, and they’re not terribly good at it, or even if they are good at it, imagine what could happen if everyone was on a glamour project.
Another section of the book is dedicated to doing only work that gets you attention. What are some examples of that, and how do you communicate to your managers the work you’re doing without coming across as boastful?
Joan C. Williams is an amazing researcher. She has data that shows that workers of color tend to be worker bees, they tend to put their heads down and try to do good work in order to show their manager that they have a good work ethic, that they have great skills, but they are not the people who stand up in a meeting and say, “I have a great idea for where we should take this department” and have their manager actually listen to them.
As far as promoting yourself, I think it’s important to promote yourself to the right people. And this can be contradictory, because we tell people of color all the time, “Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Your privileged co-workers won’t think twice about tooting their own horn, so you shouldn’t either.” But also, if you don’t have that psychological safety to do it, you’re going to appear boastful, aggressive or too assertive. So what I tell those people is, instead of trumpeting your accomplishments, write them down and make notes about them. Try to turn them from boasts to data.
I encourage people to look around and see who’s doing the office housework, who’s doing the glamour work, and try to disrupt those systems.
Later in the book, I mention the weekly review, keeping a work diary. That’s where you can write down all of your challenges [and] how you overcame them, as well as your big or small wins. And now you have data that you can go to your boss in your annual performance review and say, “Look at all the stuff that I did this year. These are the things I learned. Here’s what I would like to learn next quarter or next year.” And they can’t really refute that. All of us know what it’s like to go into a performance review the day or week before, scrambling to think of what we’re going to talk about. You come in with your work diary, and you’ve done your manager’s job for them.
I love this idea of the weekly review. In the book, you describe it as three parts: getting clear, getting current and getting creative. Can you explain this briefly, and why you do it?
My weekly review is every Friday. It’s not a time to do work. It’s very easy to get tempted to do work during your weekly review, but don’t do it. It is 100% time to refocus on why you’re doing the work you’re doing. So get that 10,000-foot view and — to be fair, this isn’t my idea. This came from David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity method, which I love.
“Getting clear” is writing down all the stuff that you have been doing this past week, all of the small wins, all of the people that you enjoyed working with, all the people that you hated working with, the arguments you had at work or the people who made you feel like crap. And as you take these notes, you start to make a list of people that you like working with and the people that you don’t like working with. And then the next time you have a big idea, you tap the people you like working with, because you’re going to have better odds of success. “Getting current” is like, “What do I have to do now? Who’s waiting on me? Who am I waiting on? What am I going to do next Monday? What are my meetings like for next week? And how do I need to prepare for them?” “Getting creative” is the really important part, which is, “How does all of this stuff that I’m doing — all of this work that my manager assigned me — how does that fit into my goals, my team’s goals and then my overall career goals?” If you catch yourself doing a lot of office housework, a lot of busy work, you may realize it takes time to step back and say, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t fit in with where I want to go.” Once you realize that, you can start to come up with ways to redirect your efforts toward your career goals. And we talked about this a bit in the section on managing up as well, like convincing your manager that your career goals are lined up with their goals. The weekly review is the time to sit down and say to yourself, “How do I make that case? How do I get out of the stuff that I don’t want to do, and how do I get more of the stuff that I want to do?”
You write in one section, “You have three jobs, in short: being nice and nonthreatening; being good at what you do (twice as good, to be considered worthy of the space you take up); and being popular and strategic, playing the workplace game of politics and allegiance.”
Many marginalized people struggle with the first part: being nice and nonthreatening. They might want to bring up issues with the way they or other marginalized members of their workplace are treated, but they also want to do it in a way that doesn’t make the person they’re addressing feel threatened, accused or uncomfortable, which then runs the risk of hurting the marginalized person and their position at the company. How do you approach this double bind?
So there’s this activist and rapper Jay Smooth. He did a video ages ago called “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist.” The gist of it was to tell somebody that something that they did was racist without telling them that they’re racist. It’s about taking the inflammatory language out of it and focusing on action, not intention, helping diffuse some of the tension. “Racist” is a trigger word for lots of people, and defensiveness naturally comes up whenever someone confronts you with something that you did wrong. So instead, you could say, “Hey, I’m not saying that you are a bad person; I’m saying that the thing you did caused harm.”
"Dissecting who gets what work, why, and how both employees and managers can assign work more fairly is essential to making sure everyone has the opportunity to bring their fullest selves to their jobs." Image: Rodale; Protocol
How do you convince people that microaggressions are actually a big deal?
There’s two approaches that I take. One is to confront that person and their own bias. So when somebody says, “I don’t really think that’s a big deal, or important or significant,” I would turn it around on them and ask, “If that happened to you, for reasons you couldn’t control, how would you feel?” The other thing I would do, especially if the manager or person in this context is open to an actual conversation, is point to real data that show that microaggressions have a tangible health and productivity impact on marginalized people. There are actual real-world examples of negative health outcomes for people of color, for women in all-male workspaces, people who have higher incidences of heart disease and high blood pressure and other stress-related illnesses.
And now, if that’s not enough, then we can talk about productivity. Because the other big thing there is when a person walks into a workspace with a certain amount of social baggage they can’t control, they have to navigate that social baggage in addition to doing their actual job. And then on top of that, when you have other people who don’t appreciate the fact that they have that social baggage or treat them in a certain way that’s prejudicial, discriminatory or something along those lines — now the person being marginalized has to deal with that on their back. And then on top of all that nonsense, now the marginalized person has to decide whether or not they want to call them out [on their prejudice or discrimination] and own the stereotypes that will come their way if they do call them out. It’s like having two or three jobs in addition to your actual job.
Generally speaking, no managers tend to think that they are the problem, and that they’re the ones marginalizing their employees. And yet, there are so many bad managers out there. So what are some signs, for the un-self-aware, that you might be the problem?
I think the key for managers that want to pull the wool off their eyes is to examine: “How is your team functioning? Do you think everyone is engaged? Is everybody actually involved with their tasks? Are they bringing ideas to you? Do they feel safe with you?” And this part involves embracing a more empathetic style of leadership across the board.
I’m a manager, and I deal with this a lot. I do check-ins with my employees, I make sure that I have a 1:1 with them every other week, because weekly meetings kill me. I don’t just ask them, “How are you doing on the things I assigned you?” I ask them, “How are you doing?” I want to know how they feel about their job. I want to know if they feel like they’re spending their time on productive things. If you catch somebody in team meetings and they never talk, then pull them aside later and ask, “Hey, I noticed you never talk in team meetings. That’s fine. I don’t want to make you talk if you’re uncomfortable, but I do want to make sure that you’re comfortable sharing your ideas and opinions with me if you want to.”
Most of your book is written toward employees, with practical tips on how to navigate the workplace. What is your biggest piece of advice for managers and people in positions of power who genuinely want to do better by these employees and create an inclusive, equitable workplace?
The two big words to keep pinned above your monitor are “psychological safety.” Make sure that you engage your team on a personal level and not just an authoritative one. That can be very difficult at higher levels of an organization, in which case your job then is to make sure the managers that are under you do that as well.
I almost wholeheartedly refute the idea that a marginalized person has a responsibility to make a place better for other marginalized people, because we’re almost never empowered to do it.
A lot of managers like to do that in terms of an open-door policy, but that puts the onus back on the employee to then come to you and speak up. Managers need to do field trips. They need to go and sit with their employees. They need to assertively have those quarterly 1:1 meetings, make sure that no one on your team is ever surprised by your assessment of their work.
If you have somebody that is a superstar, great. You’re probably already having conversations with them about what they want to do next. If you have somebody who is kind of just clocking in and clocking out, and that’s all they bring to the table, check in with them to make sure that that’s what they want to do. They may be doing that because they’re disengaged and they don’t like their job anymore. They may be looking for something new. And you could tap into the wealth of their abilities if you just approach them and say, “Hey, I actually give a crap about you and your career. I would love to see you do better here.” Sometimes that’s all it takes, and very few managers take the time to do that.
What are some signs that someone feels psychological safety with you as their manager?
If that person is open with their thoughts, they bring you their opinions. They bring you their ideas. A lot of that has to do with engagement. Someone who is eager to be part of your team is someone who feels safe with you, someone who is eager to give you feedback about how things are going, whether they are good or bad, and someone who is happy to meet with you and who is bringing their whole selves to work: their hobbies, their thoughts, their passions, turning their pet project into their work project.
There’s been a slew of national tragedies that are affecting marginalized people at work, from the assault on abortion rights to a string of mass shootings, many of them targeting specific racial groups. How should managers be responding to these events and talking about them at work, if at all?
I think they should bring it up because, again, that affects your team’s ability to bring their whole selves to work. The energy level of your Asian colleague after three years of rising anti-Asian hate crimes or your Black colleague who’s coming in after the Buffalo shootings: They’re not bringing their A-game today, right? And even if they are, they’re doing it with all of this extra weight on their back, and you need to be able to, as a manager, empathetically say to them, “Hey, I may not understand exactly what you’re dealing with right now, but I know it’s difficult, and I know you’re probably going through it. And even if you’re not, and even if this is none of my business, I just want you to know that I see you, I appreciate you and if you need something from me, let me know.” And that does put some of the onus back on that person, but I think that’s important in this case, because what you don’t want to do is try and white savior your way into things. The important thing is not to do something, but to let them know that you see them as a whole person and not a cog in your machine.
What do you think the effect of working from home has on marginalized employees? On the one hand, you probably receive fewer microaggressions and feel more comfortable, but on the other hand, you’re likely to have less access to opportunities and the chumminess factor of being in person. What do you think is happening?
Exactly, it’s two-sided. There are pros and cons. The pros are great, right? Being away from the people who you know make you feel like crap, being away from the office politics, being safe in your own space, those things are extremely valuable. At the same time, though, you don’t get to be in the elevator and hear what’s going on. You don’t get to have lunch with your manager or somebody else’s manager. You don’t get to get this office scuttlebutt, hear whatever’s going on. You get to feel isolated.
That’s exactly what happened to me at The [New York] Times. I felt bad enough after the microaggressions I experienced that I’d started working from home more often than not, and that was great for my productivity. But I noticed that it was great in the way that I was doing a lot of office housework, and I didn’t have access to the people that were assigning the glamour projects. So I had to make sure that I was even more aggressive about working with people that I liked and bringing my ideas to people that I felt safe working with. You have to compensate for that lack of physical access. You have to make more allies, you have to do more Zoom coffees, you have to do more work in order to do better work, and it sucks. But it also removes some of the pressure or some of that social baggage.
As a marginalized employee, how do you know when it’s time to throw in the towel and find somewhere that treats you better versus keeping your head down and continuing to work?
My best answer is if you feel like you are heads-down and working, and you don’t want to be doing that, you want to be doing something better, it’s time to go. And I know it’s not easy to just up and leave a job, especially if you don’t have one lined up, but this is where the work diary comes back in. If you have your work diary, you’ve got skills that you’ve developed over the past X months or years already written down in your work diary ready to go right over to your resume. And when you get into those interviews, your work diary again has the answers to questions like, “Tell me about a time that you faced a challenge and how you overcame it. Tell me what you are weak at.” You’ve got real answers as opposed to fake ones.
Oftentimes, we think the solution to talking about race and ethnicity is to create a group that does that, let them do it and forget that they exist.
I tell people a lot: When you feel like your identity is keeping you in a space that is not either on track to do your best work or denies you access to good work at all, get out of there. There are other places that will honor your skills, your experience and your background. You just have to find them, and it’s hard. But that’s where you tap into community, your networks, professional associations and employee resource groups, things that are aligned with your identity or your skill set to help you smooth that transition.
How do you balance the responsibility you might feel to stay and make your workplace better for other people who might come after you with your own sanity and self-care?
I almost wholeheartedly refute the idea that a marginalized person has a responsibility to make a place better for other marginalized people, because we’re almost never empowered to do it. It does come with a sense of guilt, because even when I was at The New York Times, I was like, “Don’t I have a responsibility as a senior editor here to make this place better, especially if no one else is doing it?” But at the same time, you can’t do that at the cost of your own happiness, health, well-being, safety. No one benefits. And this is old protest language, right? You’re no good to the cause if you’re dead, if you’re sick, depressed or bedridden. You’re not going to be able to do the work of improving a workspace if you yourself are so marginalized that you feel awful walking into the place; you won’t have energy to do it.
Sometimes it’s not about the marginalized person doing the work. Sometimes it’s about the privileged person standing up and saying, “I’m going to do the work, you do the glamour work that I would have gotten otherwise. I’m going to make sure that we hire fairly. I’m going to make sure that we do promotions and raises fairly.”
Why do you think that it’s harder for people to talk about race than it is for them to talk about gender, especially in a work context?
For one, race is so thorny in American society that people are so afraid of talking about race incorrectly. In some cases, that stops the conversation before it can start. Oftentimes, we think the solution to talking about race and ethnicity is to create a group that does that, let them do it and forget that they exist. So we create a DEI committee, and then we just let them do their thing. I think it’s important to remind people that it’s OK to make mistakes, there is room to be an ally who messes up sometimes. And that’s OK.
A core tenet of productivity is that productivity is not about getting more stuff done so that you can just do more stuff. It’s about getting things you have to get done done so you can focus and put your energy toward the things that matter to you.
On the other hand, we have more women in the workplace than ever. It’s easier to talk about issues of gender because there’s so many more people with power who are willing to talk about it. To be blunt, we have a lot of white women in power who benefit from DEI initiatives and projects about diversity, about bringing in new voices. In those cases, we often hire white women.
Anything else you think people should know?
The one thing that I always tell everybody if I have an opportunity is that a core tenet of productivity is that productivity is not about getting more stuff done so that you can just do more stuff. It’s about getting things you have to get done done so you can focus and put your energy toward the things that matter to you. That’s especially important for marginalized folks, because if you’re stuck with busy work, get that stuff done, get it off your plate so you can focus on your passion projects or the things that are really important to you, whether it’s going home to see your family or drafting that pitch for the next big project that you really want to work on that will move your career forward.