The Racism of False Assumptions in the Office

BY Emily Nonko | July 27, 2020

“You don’t look like a lawyer” was a comment often heard by the Black female attorneys interviewed by Tsedale M. Melaku, a sociologist and author. Melaku had originally wanted to go to law school and work for a law firm herself, but was turned off by the unforgiving lifestyle. She also noticed another fact of legal life: There were few Black female attorneys and close to zero Black female partners. “I wondered–what is it about this space that creates this dynamic? How does race and gender impact their career trajectories?”

Those questions led her to pursue a doctorate in sociology in which she examined the race and gender dynamic of law firms. In interviews with Black female attorneys, she tracked similar threads. “These women were often mistaken for non-attorney staff,” she said. “They constantly had to negotiate their presence and explain what put them in these positions–it’s like you have to read your resume every single time.”

Melaku spoke about her work last week in a conversation with Kristen Bellstrom, features editor for Fortune, on how these women’s experiences outline broader challenges of race, gender and class equity in the corporate world, offering steps that law firms and other organizations could take to make their workplaces more inclusive. They spoke at From Day One’s July virtual conference, The New Push for Workplace Equity.

Melaku, who is now a post-doctoral research fellow with the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas & the Caribbean at The Graduate Center (CUNY), turned her research into the 2019 book You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism. When Bellstrom pointed out that You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer might be considered an untraditional title for academic writing, Melaku said she felt the experiences of Black woman attorneys would resonate outside academia and law, speaking to larger challenges around race, gender and inequality in the workplace.

Kristen Bellstrom, left, features editor at Fortune, interviewed Melaku at the From Day One virtual conference

Her book also tackles big challenges standing in the way of workplace equity: structures of both systemic racism and systemic gendered racism, the “invisible labor clause” in which marginalized people spend time and energy navigating predominantly white spaces, and an “inclusion tax” that entails the resources spent–like time, money and labor–to adhere to or resist white norms.

Because there are few people of color in corporate spaces like law firms, Melaku explained, they can be easily tokenized as “diversity hires” or “benefits of affirmative action” by white colleagues. One step for law firms to improve is for white people in leadership to simply get to know more people of color than the few within the company, she added.

Corporate America also needs to move away from “diversity” as a catchphrase and move into real action that fosters more intersectional workplaces. “Name what the problem is in the organization–racial equity, gender equity–and make it a core value of your organization, and properly fund these values so people of color aren’t doing that work within,” said Melaku. Within U.S. law firms, the problem couldn’t be more stark: between 2008 and 2019 there has only been a .01% increase in the number of Black attorneys, she said.

Melaku suggested making changes to recruitment strategies, examining workplace culture that pressures employees to “fit in,” and re-evaluating training, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities offered to attorneys early in their career. “Why can’t Black women bridge those gaps with white males to gain access to sponsors?” she asked. “What are we not saying?”

Sponsors who advocate for attorneys of color, and pass along insight like soft skills to build client relationships or practices around billing and time, can serve as powerful allies to increase workplace equity. “It’s someone who will publicly do that racial and gender work, so everyone sees they are holding themselves accountable for what goes on in the organization,” Melaku said.

She believes now is the time for law firm employees to “step up in the moment” and become allies who take a critical look at how practices, policies and culture hinder workplace equity. Those actions could be bolstered simply by learning and listening.

She suggested a reading list beyond her own book: Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression by Joe R. Feagin, Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and Reproducing Racism: White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality by Wendy Leo Moore.

“Build your own knowledge base and then listen,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt to listen.”

Editor's note: Participants in the session asked if Tsedale Melaku would recommend additional titles for further reading, which she has provided:

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.






With a Bumper Crop of New Options, Benefits Leaders Need to Make Smart Choices

It’s no secret that employees expect more from employers than they did five years ago. Companies have offered innovative solutions from pet care to travel-as-a-benefit to meet the demand. But companies only have so many resources, especially nowadays, as the economy begins to decline. “Many of us are thinking about coming out of this couple of years of such an intensive talent and labor market, where a lot of companies have been under pressure to offer more and more,” said Joanna Daly, vice president of total rewards at IBM. “So I do think we're at an inflection point.”As a result, employers have to make choices about what benefits are the most valuable to employees and prospective hires.Daly spoke with moderator Bryan Walsh, editor for Future Project at Vox Media, at From Day One’s virtual April conference, “Creative Total Rewards to Set Employers Apart,” during a fireside chat session.
“Total rewards” refers to the combination of compensation and benefits that the company provides. At IBM, Daly said, total rewards exist within a broader value proposition and must align with the company’s goals, values, and culture.Keeping Total Rewards SustainableOne challenge employers face is maintaining sustainable benefits, especially in a changing economic landscape. Daly approaches important decisions regarding sustainability by working through a few key questions.First, she considers scale. While it’s important to consider how a new benefit will fit into your company now, it’s also critical to consider how it will work down the line. What are your company’s growth plans? Will this benefit still work as you scale your headcount?“Is that seemingly small investment going to start to become potentially a pretty large expenditure?” Daly asked.Secondly, Daly considers choice. Every dollar spent on one benefit is a dollar the company is choosing not to spend somewhere else. Why is this the best choice for the company to make?Next, she considers automation. Every human resources team only has so much time on their hands, and introducing a new benefit can eat up even more of that time. That’s why it’s important to automate wherever you can. If a benefit can be automated right from the beginning, it’ll help free up your team’s time.“Is there something that is simple to administer that achieves most of the outcome versus something highly complex that could end up taking a lot more of your time and effort to deliver?” Daly said.Lastly, Daly considers if the offering ties into the company’s culture and values.“How do you maximize the sum of what you're offering to employees so that it's cohesive? People actually perceive more value out of [the sum] than than its individual parts,” Daly said. “And I think one of the most effective ways to do that is really try to align to your culture and your values.”One way to align total rewards with company culture is to take a “design thinking” approach to benefits. Daly considers all of the personas that play a role in benefits–including the employees, their families, business leaders, and prospective hires–to find the areas where their needs align rather than looking at all their differences.“It's where you can find that alignment, that I think that you can find offerings that have that mutually reinforcing impact,” Daly said.For example, IBM used a design thinking approach to create its recognition programs. By focusing on what behaviors IBM was trying to reinforce within different personas in the company, the team was able to create a recognition program that is easy to use and grounded in the company’s culture.But why is it important for companies to be sustainable about their benefits in the first place? Daly stressed that introducing a benefit and then taking it away is much worse than never offering it at all. This is due to “loss aversion,” or the idea that people tend to notice if something is taken away more than they would if it was never there to begin with. Daly tries to think of the people who will be in her role years down the line, and how her decisions will affect them and the employees at large.“Are they going to thank me for trying my best to make good decisions? Or will they be cursing my name, that I've left them with some things to clean up? Trying to envision that future person who will be sitting in this seat is something that guides that long-term decision making,” Daly said.Total Rewards ChallengesHuman resources teams face a number of challenges when it comes to building a total rewards package, deciding what benefits to include, and rolling those benefits out to employees.One of those challenges is competing with peer companies’ offerings. Employees are bound to hear about other benefits in their industry and might wonder why their company doesn’t offer the same.But Daly reminded attendees that benefits are a long-term space, and introducing things just to take them away later or simply introducing them to respond to demand, might not play well into long-term planning.Daly said that it’s fine to learn about your competitors and take inspiration from other companies—as long as you’re not too reactive to them. Every “good idea” is only a good idea as long as it fits in with company culture.Joanna Daly and Bryan Walsh during the virtual conference (photo by From Day One)“Does this reinforce other parts of our employee value proposition and culture? And if you can't really get the answers aligned on those questions, then it's probably better not to follow suit and introduce something just because others may be doing it,” Daly said.Of course, companies have also faced the challenge of accommodating changing attitudes since the pandemic, whether it’s in regard to hybrid work, flexible schedules, or the demand for more benefits. Many employers have introduced new benefits during the pandemic to react to demand and better support employees, IBM included. Recently, IBM introduced emergency backup care for parents, who often struggle to find adequate childcare if their primary option, such as daycare or family members, fell through.By introducing this benefit, IBM was able to prevent employees from unexpectedly taking the day off, calling in sick, or falling behind on meetings and routine work. Not only does it help both the employees and the employer, but it also plays into the larger company culture of supporting one another.Since the pandemic, Daly has noticed some other changes in general attitudes towards benefits. Namely, she said, employees want their benefits to be easier to navigate. Benefits exist to make employees’ lives easier, not to stress them out even more.Additionally, she said she sees a need for more support toward financial goals during times of financial uncertainty. This can include helping to pay off student loans or saving for retirement. And employees want to stay relevant and competitive during these times of uncertainty, so skill-building and career development are extra important.In terms of schedules, she sees hourly workers wanting predictability in their schedules so they can plan their lives around their shifts. At IBM, Daly explained, every team has their own approach to hybrid, remote, and in-person work. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and teams are trusted to make their own routines.But even for seasoned HR professionals, there are always new challenges. Daly was surprised by a general shift toward employees expecting more help from their employers in a broader sense. She said it’s not uncommon for employees to ask about tax advisory or tax prep support during tax season or to inquire about benefits for their pets–many of whom were acquired during the pandemic.“Maybe before, there was a set of things that we all kind of understood the employer was providing in terms of benefits. Now, I think it's sort of blurred,” Daly explained. “People are asking for help more broadly. But that's also where we have to be deliberate about where we invest and where we spend our time and money versus things that people might be okay to manage on their own.”Measuring Value and SuccessWith so many options for employers in terms of total rewards packages, it’s vital to know how to measure what is and isn’t working. Sometimes it’s hard for leaders to see the value of certain rewards, especially those that are non-monetary.For example, IBM’s recognition program has a mix of monetary rewards, point-based rewards (which can be redeemed for physical prizes), and digital cards that employees can send to one another.Although the monetary rewards might seem the most “valuable” at first glance, Daly explained that every card that an employee sends to someone leads to five more sent.“And when we step back and thought about the reason behind this, it's really that someone took time out of their day to recognize and appreciate someone else,” she said. “And that act is really communicating, ‘I see you, I value you.’”Measuring the success of rewards, in general, can be difficult, especially when so many things are changing at once. Daly keeps success in mind in a few different ways.“When I think of the total rewards space, the first thing is, I don't want any of the total rewards, offerings, compensation or benefits to be a pain point, and I don't want them to be barriers to recruitment or to retaining our employees,” she said.Still, she also doesn’t want to overdo benefits or invest in the wrong rewards. It’s not just about being above market. It’s about being market-competitive, offering a solid package, and differentiating packages based on skills.“For me, that's success,” she said. “Others will have a different answer.”Erika Riley is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

Erika Riley | June 06, 2023

Unlocking Our Full Potential: Breaking Free From Limiting Habits, Jobs, and Business Models

Would you believe that even the most accomplished individuals in their field deal with the feeling of being stuck?Adam Alter, the author of Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most relays that Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest living soccer player, is famously quite anxious. When he was starting out his coaches noted that while physically and athletically accomplished, he lacked temperament.Messi subsequently had to learn to quell his anxiety, and his solution might seem paradoxical. “He learned to start the game by not playing for the first few minutes,” Alter told journalist Lila Seidman of the Los Angeles Times during From Day One’s May virtual conference. “He spends the first 2-3 minutes just ambling around. If you plot the path, everybody is darting around. Messi is barely moving: it quells his anxiety, but he’s also tactically beneficial, he’s surveying the territory. When it comes time to play for the remaining minutes, he’s in a better tactical position.”At the core of Anatomy of a Breakthrough, is the idea that trying to counteract stuckness with frantic action is counterproductive.Stuckness is something that is extended or chronic. “It’s not the momentary frustration. Those crop up all the time,” explained Alter. Being stuck is something that plagues people in the long haul. In addition, Alter urges people to focus away from achievement alone.Rather, he is interested in the kind of positive outcomes that follow frustration, friction, and difficulty. “One of the interesting features is how many interesting paradoxes you encounter,” he explains. “When you’re stuck, you should do nothing. We tend to flail in the phase of stuckness. We’re well adapted to deal with physical stuckness, we're not adapted to deal with stuckness with emotional consequences. Before you do anything, grapple with the fact you’re in this provoking, lonely situation. There are paradoxes that apply to breaking free and breaking through.”Lila Seidman interviewed Adam Alter in the grand-finale fireside chat during the From Day One May virtual conference (photo by From Day One)This involves reframing how to view the feeling of difficulty. Difficulty typically awakens strong, negative emotions. “As a species, [we need to] recognize we’re in the position of stuck and failing,” he explains. “Those failures, as you mount them, become the source behind success.” In fact, the idea of succeeding quickly is a myth. “The deeper you dig, you start to see that no success comes from a vacuum: it’s important to view those failures as essential, and that in itself calms people down,” says Alter.Stuckness does not just plague individuals, but companies too. “When I was a grad student, when recruiters came to campus, they wouldn’t just go to the finance people,” recalls Alter. “A lot of these firms will say “show me the best Russian literature majors,” and pick from the non-overlapping fields.” This resulted in the recruitment of smart people who would learn on the job but would bring a different perspective to the workplace.In addition, some companies purposely cultivate conflict: there’s evidence that if you have an incompetent AI bot that influences your process, even if it’s not productive, it shakes things up. These bots unstick you faster. On a human level, Pixar has adopted a similar strategy: while the bulk of the work consists of creating and animating immersive worlds where water flickers and even the thinnest strand of grass moves at the slightest breeze, they purposely bring in conflict in their artistic process. They’ll bring in a storytelling expert who intentionally cares little about graphics and visuals, shifting the focus. “The black sheep will push back,” says Alter. “You should have one or two in your circle.”Getting unstuck also requires the act of reframing the way we perceive creativity. Creativity has two lenses, explains Alter. “One is the insight lens,” says Alter. “Insight is the one we most associate with the standard definition of creativity. Sure, some people have more insight than others, and this gives them more ideas. I find it an upsetting idea. It’s not supported by research,” says Alter. By contrast, the production lens says that creativity is a matter of circumstance, hard work, and a lot of sleep—and sleep is dramatically important.“We have this illusion that we think that our best ideas come first and the bad ideas follow,” of course, it’s not factually correct. Try asking people to list unusual foods to eat at Thanksgiving. “The first 10 ideas tumble out, the others take effort to come by, because all the obvious stuff is gone,” explains Alter. “There’s a reason the first ideas come easily: they’re not creative.” People erroneously think that the ideas that come after are inherently worse. “If you spend an extra 10 minutes, those are the divergent drives,” says Alter. “It’s not just persevering: when things get hard, that’s when the good stuff starts to happen.”Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Boston and Milan.

Angelica Frey | June 05, 2023

Providing Learning & Growth Opportunities for Employees, Even in Austere Times

Finding low-cost learning opportunities can be the difference between keeping an employee and losing them. According to an international poll by McKinsey, 41% of workers who quit their jobs in recent years did so because of a lack of career development opportunities, the most commonly cited reason for voluntary departure.“It’s important that we’re retaining our employees because we need that knowledge internally,” said Nicole Underwood, VP of HR business partners at visual media company Getty Images. The company’s workers are highly specialized, and it can be tough to find replacements. If they’re not able to backfill a vacated position, Getty offers others the chance to volunteer for the responsibilities on the table, opening up reach projects and promotable work. Underwood sees it as an investment “not only in the individual who gets the opportunity, but in the others who are surrounding them and see this as an opportunity to look for their own.” Watching colleagues grow can spark the motivation to do the same.During From Day One’s May virtual conference, Underwood and four other leaders in people operations and learning and development participated in a panel discussion, which I moderated, on how to provide career development opportunities for employees even in austere times.Fellow panelist Madhukar Govindaraju, the CEO at coaching and networking software company Numly, said that in the past he’s been in the unfortunate position of choosing who gets access to opportunities like coaches and mentoring. It’s a choice he’s not willing to accept anymore.“Even in a public company, I could afford executive coaching for only the top 4% of my organization. What do you do with the bottom 96%? Do you tell them to wait until they get promoted? You have to do something about it,” he said.“We do find ways to be scrappy,” said Jennifer Muszik, the head of worldwide field learning at biotech company Biogen. For instance, if you’re forced to roll back a third-party coaching app, replace it with an internal program. “Not everybody can get a coach, but who can get a mentor?” Biogen pays for some of its leaders to train as certified coaches with the expectation that they pass that knowledge along. “They’re going out into the organization and coaching others, then others get the benefit of that skill, and then can apply that within their own teams,” she said.“Internal talent is an amazing resource, and I’m always surprised at how interested people are to hear from one another,” said Greg Hill, the chief people officer at corporate wellness and fitness center operator Exos. He calls it “relatable learning.”The panelists from top left, moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Madhukar Govindaraju of Numly, Nicole Underwood of Getty Images, Jennifer Muszik of Biogen, Gina Larson of Teneo, and Greg Hill of Exos (photo by From Day One)Internal programs have their limits, and not everyone who wants a shot will get one, so panelists recommended selecting workers who already have specific goals in mind. “A lot of people say ‘I want to grow,’ and then when we talk to them about how they want to grow, they’re not really sure,” Hill noted.Gina Larsen, the senior director of talent development at PR advisory and executive consulting firm Teneo, said she likes to identify an employee with leadership potential, someone on the succession plan, but with some obstacle in their way, like a missing or underdeveloped skill.If you’re in a position where you do have to roll back a development program or be more selective with participants, speak frankly, but don’t spook the staff, said Hill. “Personal professional development and career growth is a non-starter, if you don’t offer it in this day and age,” he said. So rather than telling employees, “we’re not doing it right now,” tell them, “we’re going to do it differently for a while.” Some employers are designing elaborate development programs inside their organizations. At Getty Images, cohorts of about 25 employees go through a nine-month intensive where they learn how the business works and receive mentorship from senior leaders. At the end, they’re expected to document and pitch a new business idea.Not all proposals are chosen, but some are. Underwood said that one of the first cohorts came up with a mentoring program for members of underrepresented demographics. “It’s been wildly successful, and all of our senior leadership team has been tapped,” said Underwood. “We’ve seen over 75% of these employees have been promoted into the next role.”If you don’t have the HR budget for learning and development, check the sofa cushions, panelists said. Sales teams have learning and development budgets, and so do employee resource groups, said Govindaraju. “We have had very good success working with companies that have ERGs that are already chartered to drive engagement because now we’re bringing learning and engagement into one bucket.”If budget isn’t the problem, then it’s time, Govindaraju added. The HR department is overloaded, as are people managers, and there’s often little time left for running skill development programs. “Managers [are] already burdened with various things. Now you’re adding an element of learning how to code, and now suddenly you are responsible for the development of your team members,” he said. Teneo’s Larsen argued that austerity doesn’t require sacrificing ambition. When time is a luxury, she chooses fewer but bigger projects. Teneo recently flew in 25 senior leaders from around the world with the remit to collaborate and grow the business plan. It was a huge financial investment–but she was confident in the returns. If they put in $150,000 and just one of those leaders produces a $500,000 increase in revenue, the investment would be worth it.“It goes back to rigor and discipline,” said Larsen. “I think a really important part is not overburdening the learning team, because this takes a lot of time. So if we do an ambitious program that makes a big impact, you say goodbye to another program or two that’s less impactful so that you have the bandwidth and opportunity to make something that [requires more money], but is super impactful.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women's experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others. 

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | May 30, 2023