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Kimiya Shokoohi is a writer and filmmaker based in Greater Vancouver
There is an unspoken rule in many workplace settings: Make your manager look good and you, too, will do well.
Sometimes it works. In positive cases, the successful performance of an employee reflects well on the manager and the whole team, which leads to greater opportunities overall.
But this dynamic can also easily slide into exploitation, especially when an employee is younger, a woman or from an under-represented group. Sometimes employees don’t get their due or are even fired. Entrenched groups continue to maintain power despite the illusion of inclusivity and diversity within the organization, and the cycle of abuse and resulting distrust continues.
There are numerous examples of such incidents in real life.
In Silicon Valley, women have quit their jobs at Google because of racialized misogyny, while others have been advised to go on mental-health leave when they complained about racism and sexism. In Toronto, temporary workers have risked their lives during the pandemic to help others but have barely earned enough to get by, while others have had to sound the alarm after not being paid for performing shifts on a trial basis.
With just 37 women listed as chief executive officers among Fortune 500 firms, and just three of them racialized, it’s no wonder exploitation persists across the workplace.
We tend to think of exploitation as an issue predominantly affecting marginalized communities, migrant workers and those in low-wage jobs. But poor business practices cut across demographics. Exploitation within an organization reveals institutional flaws in systems that have allowed unethical behaviour to flourish and diminish trust and collaboration among colleagues.
“The number one thing that workers look for is respect at work and that speaks to the power imbalance,” said Pam Frache, a spokesperson with Toronto-based Workers Action Centre, a non-profit that works to defend the rights of workers and change outdated labour laws.
“Even if it’s big reputable employers, they [workers] don’t get all their wages and don’t get holiday pay. … There’s gaslighting for people who experience racism in the workplace,” said Frache. “I’m not sure we can eradicate it, as long as someone has the power to fire someone else, but we can try to mitigate it and ensure there’s due process.”
Less than half of full-time employees place a “great deal of trust” in their employer, boss or colleagues, according to a 2016 Ernst & Young study, which surveyed 9,800 workers between 19 and 68 in eight countries. Their research found Gen X is least likely to trust their bosses among the generations, with 41 per cent indicating trust, while baby boomers worldwide and millennials sampled in the U.S. were most likely to trust their bosses, at 52 per cent.
In order of prevalence, the factors for determining trust include: delivering on promises, providing job security, providing fair compensation and good benefits, communicating openly and transparently, providing equal opportunity for pay and promotion and operating ethically. For women compared to men, more emphasis is placed on opportunities for equal pay and promotion, as well as diverse hirings.
There are two types of trust, explains Heidi Gardner, faculty chair of Harvard Law School’s Accelerated Leadership Program. There is competence trust and interpersonal trust. Competence trust translates directly to professional competence, while interpersonal trust relates more to human connection and integrity.
There are also two different types of trust personalities: automatic trust and evidence-based trust. Automatic trust aligns with the notion of “innocent until proven guilty,” where trust is given until broken. The evidence-based methods withhold trust until there is adequate evidence to instill it.
One line of defence in preserving the balance of power is to encourage hiring managers to offer more employee support and appreciation to foster trust with their direct reports. Among colleagues, providing more communication and information will set the relationships off in a helpful direction, suggests Gardner. Beyond that, it’s up to companies to ensure that employees are feeling included, and their ideas and interests taken into meaningful account.
In the meantime, one way to ensure harm is reduced in the workplace is to strengthen the laws that ensure just-cause protection for workers.
“We need much stronger investment in the human rights tribunals and investment against discrimination in the workplace, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia in the workplace,” said Frache at the Workers Action Centre.
Still, as efforts endure to make amends for a more just society, it’s worth remembering that stories of oppression and exploitation don’t stay buried forever. To reference Martin Luther King Jr., there is justice in the long arc of the moral universe.
What I’m reading around the web
- If you’re interested in learning more, read this piece in the BBC for a further breakdown of Heidi Gardner’s research on trust in the workplace, as well as how to build rapport with colleagues working remotely. The intention isn’t to sow distrust but to build better skills in knowing how to trust, when and why.
- If there’s anything the pandemic has awakened, it’s the realization that life is finite. But there has to be a division between work-life and life-life. Meredith Turits at the BBC asks whether extreme working culture is worth the big rewards, challenging the boot camp culture so often endorsed by corporate leaders. Drawing examples from some of the biggest names in finance, the piece examines whether we can change deeply ingrained work culture.
- Let’s talk about loyalty and how it can lead to our biggest blind spots. Perhaps, as Jennifer Finney Boylan writes in The New York Times, where loyalty truly belongs is not with individuals or institutions but with ideas for the common good. To rephrase philosopher Josiah Royce, we can be loyal to loyalty itself.
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The hybrid workplace is here to stay – three ways to make the most of it The big question is how to enable a hybrid way of working – where workers have the choice to be co-located or remote – that maintains or increases productivity and engagement, writes Naomi Titleman Colla.
How do I quit my job on good terms? In Nine-To-Five, our weekly career advice column, a reader wonders how to maintain a good relationship with her current employer if they intend to start freelancing instead.
The normalization of free work for exposure especially hurts early-career creatives, writes Karen K. Tran, a writer and recent graduate. Unfortunately, the problem has become worse over the years, especially as the freelance and small-business market has become more competitive, and influencer culture picks up steam.
Leadership Lab is a series where executives, experts and writers share their views and advice about the world of work. You can find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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