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Kimiya Shokoohi is a writer and filmmaker based in Greater Vancouver.

Throughout her more than 11 years in the hospitality industry, Vancouver-born, Tunisian-Chinese chef Karima Chellouf has drawn criticism for refusing to follow the leadership of abusive bosses and to work in hostile environments.

There were incidents when European colleagues in Canadian kitchens remarked on her mixed heritage. Other times, supervisors asserted their position and authority rather than working to understand the concerns of a direct report. Chellouf recalls an incident when a chef began yelling at her when she raised the issue of a colleague sharing photos of themselves in brown face on Halloween.

“When a person says you don’t fit the culture – who is the culture for?” Chellouf says. “If a person doesn’t want to hire me because I refuse to accept abuse, that job wasn’t for me.”

Chellouf’s story is a prime example of what women of colour frequently face in professional environments – where being outspoken leads to one being deemed the “problem.” The experience often goes as follows.

A woman of colour enters an organization excited and ready for the role. She feels welcomed and needed by white leadership at first. As time passes, aggressions begin to grow against her. Sometimes they arise as a result of racist subconscious biases, other times there is malicious intent.

She flags the issue with human resources and tries to make allies across departments. Within her team, her concerns are minimized, ignored, gaslit and abandoned. The woman of colour is targeted as the problem. She exits the organization.

This kind of scenario occurs so frequently that the Montreal-based Centre for Community Organizations, which goes by the acronym COCo, published a visual tool in 2018 to explain it and help organizations prevent it from happening.

“We found that when we looked at the data, it mapped consistently,” said Emily Yee Clare, one of the researches with the centre. “There were a lot of stories of people needing to leave for their well-being and safety.”

Thirty percent of women of colour in the Canadian nonprofit sector left a job because of the work environment, the centre found. Elsewhere, visible minorities continue to be underrepresented in leadership with just one in 10 executives belonging to a minority group, according to the 2016 census.

That’s a notable concern, given that more than one-fifth of Canada’s total population in 2016 was foreign born.

The promotion of meaningful multiculturalism must come from the top down.

“Safety means being able to show up fully as yourself,” Yee Clare said, adding that tokenized employees usually have to wear cultural masks. Even then, they are on the outs when white colleagues bond and corral around their cultural references. “To be seen is to be heard and it’s a hard ephemeral experience.”

When these scenarios arise, the “problem” women trope can often be used to shift the onus of responsibility back onto minorities. Individuals are deemed the “wrong fit” and accused of claiming “victim mentality” when they are vocal about violent and abusive behaviour.

Associate professor Izumi Sakamoto at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto has been researching the experience of immigrants and other marginalized communities for more than 20 years. Part of her work is mobilizing employers to consider diverse hires. Almost across the board, such issues arise because people and systems haven’t been put in place to create balance in the social and cultural dynamics of the company, she said.

Sakamoto challenges the negative tropes that follow minority hires and questions why “fitting in” has been made a priority in work culture at all.

“If you’re a charismatic leader, no one is going to ask you if you’re fitting in,” she said. “Did Trump fit into anything?”

For Chellouf, speaking out against a disparaging culture that has become an embedded part of many kitchens was a step against the forces that labelled her as problematic and insubordinate.

She has since gone on to teach and speak about food and kitchen culture, and in 2018 she started her own business to reclaim control of her career.

“I’m talented but got in trouble often because I refused to accept abuse,” Chellouf said. “My friends and I built a community about food outside of that.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • When tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the Paris Open because speaking to the press was disruptive to her mental health, it sparked a conversation about the type of treatment we expect women, and especially women of colour, to simply stomach at the highest levels of sport. More on Osaka and “the power of nope” in The New York Times.
  • Rebels get a bad rap in the work world but as Loizos Heracleous and David Robson explain at BBC Future, rebels with a cause are constructive deviants. Giving them the space to spark great ideas is how IBM transitioned its business model to the internet, how the Apple Macintosh came to be, and how people such as Elon Musk are building remarkable technologies.
  • Deals that legally force former employees to stay silent about discrimination are immoral and need to stop, say complainants in the more than 800-person class-action lawsuit against the federal government. Read the latest about the case launched by Black former public servants as reported by Robyn Miller and Estelle Côté-Sroka at CBC News.

More opinion from Globe Careers

Tips for a hybrid workplace: How not to be out of sight, out of mind Will intermittent in-person interactions make it harder to get things accomplished? Will your career progression be negatively affected? The answer to all these questions is “possibly,” says leadership expert Merge Gupta Sunderji.

The 3x3x3 approach to personal development Three learning officers with McKinsey & Company say the most effective strategy for achieving development goals involves three key elements: a defined number of clear and immediate learning goals; a defined period to meet those goals; and a defined group of people who can support and monitor progress on those goals, writes columnist Harvey Schachter.

More from the section

Salary negotiation 101: How to ask for a raise A lot of people feel uncomfortable negotiating with their boss for more money. But if you don’t ask, you won’t get it. In the latest episode of Stress Test, personal finance columnist Rob Carrick and personal finance editor Roma Luciw hear from a group of friends who share how they’re going about asking for a raise.

After a pandemic-era departure, this claims adjuster is looking for her next job While Jane is approaching retirement age, she has no intentions of slowing down and plans to work another 10 years.

Which benefits and perks are here to stay post-pandemic? “Recharge days” for employees, “no-meeting zones” and the occasional home-delivered meal are all on the list

I believe my low salary is pay discrimination. What can I do? This professor of a large Canadian university wants to know whether their employer is only obliged to pay the minimum salary

Remote, in-office or hybrid: Who gets to decide where you work? One of the biggest challenges employers now face is determining who is responsible for deciding where employees work: the CEO and executive team, managers, or the employees themselves.


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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