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If Your Company's Values Don't Align With Your Own, Should You Stay or Go?

Speaking up about injustice can be dangerous. So can staying in a harmful environment.

by Gretchen Brown
June 12, 2020 | Work

Companies across the U.S. posted black squares on Instagram and released statements in support of the Black community last week. But many are facing a reckoning as employees hold them accountable for deep-seated racism and diversity problems.

No industry is untouched: Clothing companies like Adidas and Reformation. Media companies Refinery 29 and the New York Times. Big tech companies Microsoft and Amazon

"You can make a statement," leadership coach Cicily Newby said. "But really the proof is in what's going on in your four walls."

Jordan* knows this personally. She's employed by a Midwest healthcare company that released a statement after George Floyd's killing. It was vague.

"The ask was that each person in the company take time to self-reflect and improve themselves," said Jordan, who asked that we use a pseudonym for her privacy.

"There was no initial recognition of systemic inequalities or concrete actions taken."

For Jordan, this statement wasn't enough for a workplace that is already racist and discriminatory. She's one of about six Black women at a company of nearly 2,000.

Lots of folks are stuck in this same situation. If you realize that your workplace's values don't align with your own, do you leave? Or do you stay and try to change things?

Consider what you want to change

"The most important thing is to ask yourself if the event is worth your time and attention to confront," said HR consultant Sarah Morgan

"Also ask yourself what you want to achieve by responding to it so that you are clear on the outcome you desire."

Black and brown folks who are experiencing racism are often unfairly burdened to speak up about it. Sometimes it's easier to leave the company — and its problems — behind.

But the grass isn't always greener. As a Black woman in information technology, Jordan said she's experienced racism, either covert or overt, everywhere she's ever worked. She's left a job because management was overtly racist.

Now in her early thirties, she's going to try to stay in her current job — only because she thinks there's potential for change.

woman crying discriminated work. rewire pbs work workplace values
Staying in a discriminatory work environment can be harmful over time.  |  Credit: Adobe

"A lot of the time, people don't want to be racist, even if they are subconsciously," she said.

"If management and positions of power in your company want to do the right thing, but don't know how, it can be worth trying to guide them in that direction."

Last week, she sent a letter to her company's CEO, providing resources and actionable improvements the company could make to be more equitable, including improving benefits to attract more diverse hires and increasing diversity education.

If you don't have a direct line of communication with your CEO, or feel uncomfortable doing that, you might find that you're able to make some change on a one-on-one level, speaking with your manager.

"It's a lot easier to create change one-on-one between you and an immediate supervisor than it is to make widespread change in an organization," Newby said.

For instance, you might decide to bring it up in a regular weekly meeting with your boss. Meetings can be for more than just talking about your daily progress, but also about workplace culture and your growth opportunities in the organization.

If the environment is stifling you, that's important to bring up.

Speaking up may put you in danger — but so does standing still

Some workplaces are more hostile to honest feedback than others. 

Newby said she encourages folks in leadership positions to ask questions at their workplaces rather than tell or teach. It tends to take the discussion further and requires dialogue.

Keep in mind that there's always a risk to speaking out about injustice at your workplace. That might not mean losing your job, but could mean retaliation from folks who are mad you said something.

"When racism is confronted, at work or anywhere else, it's normal for the confronted party to become defensive – and that will make the environment more uncomfortable for you for a time," Morgan said.

That's going to be the case even if your workplace has a culture that's open to feedback. 

However, staying in a harmful environment isn't healthy either.

"Prolonged exposure to a harmful workplace culture results in PTSD," Morgan said. 

"It impacts our focus, our critical thinking, and our work outputs. It impacts our mental and physical health. It impacts our confidence and our trust of other people."

Staying in a harmful workplace is harmful, point-blank. And, over time, your work will suffer because the environment isn't setting you up to thrive.

That said, it's not on you to correct it. It can be just as hurtful when companies ask their employees of color to educate them — often for free.

"I've had people who have reached out to me and said, 'Hey, I work in a completely different department, but my company is asking me to facilitate things about race,'" Newby said. "These are people who are not experts in diversity, equity and inclusion. That is an expertise."

It's tempting to stick around and want to help. Companies often try to develop a sense of loyalty from their employees, telling them that their workplace is family.

"I think you have to be careful not to lose your edge," Newby said. "You lose your power when you think that the only place people can see your gifts is right here."

Remember: Racism is deep and structural

If you decide to leave, you can make your feelings known again in an exit interview or through a letter to senior management or HR. 

Newby said the exit interview shouldn't be the first time you're making any grievances known. You're not doing yourself any service that way.

If you've truly gone through every avenue and don't feel listened to, you can even write a negative review of the company online after you leave. This could prevent others from going through what you went through, Morgan said.

And as you apply to new jobs, make sure you know your non-negotiables. Newby said people of color should be selective about where they take their talents.

"Ask questions during the hiring process. If diversity is important to them, talk to them about real-life examples. What does that look like, feel like?" Newby said.

That said, racism isn't just an organizational problem. It's a structural, nationwide problem.

Black CEOs are still few and far between. As of June 2020, there are only four Black CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies. 

"It will take years of work to correct a harmful culture," Morgan said. "And it usually involves removal of many people in leadership, who have fed the harmful culture and/or are unwilling to accept the need for change."

Many companies have a long road ahead of them.

That includes Jordan's. She felt comfortable speaking up because she has enough experience to land on her feet if her efforts go awry.

But she might already be facing retaliation.

"Last week I was in line for a supervisory position," she said.

"And today I was removed."

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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