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Radhika Panjwani is a freelance writer from Toronto.

When employees are roped into bolstering their organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) plans, on top of their regular duties without rewards, recognition or remuneration, it hurts workers and the company, workers and experts say.

There’s a term for this – cultural tax.

This tax is a form of free labour usually requested of underrepresented employees. The workers are expected to perform added roles to provide racial, cultural and gender representation, knowledge or expertise to advance the organization’s DEI goals, explained Eddy Ng, a professor of equity and inclusion at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston.

For DEI to really work, all employees must play a role in orchestrating change, not just the indigenous, neurodiverse, disabled and people of colour. Involving the dominant group will create a sense of fairness and equity, he said.

“Cultural taxation is emotionally taxing and exhausting,” Prof. Ng said to The Globe and Mail. “Employees from equity-seeking groups are often expected drive change by educating their coworkers, acting as role models and mentors and serving as representatives on committees and boards. This work, though important, diverts focus from individual growth and career ambitions, and because it’s poorly understood and undervalued, it’s often a silent killer of careers.”

Time tax

The phrase, “cultural tax,” was coined by Stanford University professor Amado Padilla to describe the dilemma of ethnic minority faculty in post-secondary institutions who are conscripted by their institutions into leading race-related and diversity issues and roles solely because they belong to a particular cultural group. The phenomenon’s mostly prevalent in organizations that lack diversity, Prof. Padilla noted.

In the study, he explains cultural taxation poses a quandary for the faculty member asked to offer input on issues that develop from the administration. As a result, the taxed individual is expected to be both a problem-bearer as well as problem solver.

“These race-related obligations, rather than increase opportunities for faculty of colour, further marginalizes them because ‘service on behalf of cultural diversity is not usually in the equation for promotion within academia,” writes Prof. Padilla.

Diana Ubokudom, a graduate student from the University of Manitoba’s dissertation discusses the phenomenon of cultural taxation after the murder of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd’s death was a watershed moment, and it sparked a demand for organizations to revaluate their DEI practices.

Ms. Ubokudom’s research shows some organizations may be taxing employees of colour by relying on them to advance the company’s DEI efforts, draft anti-racist statements and volunteer for other race-related tasks on the notion that lived experience makes people experts on race and DEI. Organizations must make the work of a culturally taxed individual visible and adequately compensate them, she writes.

Unseen contributions

When Derrick An, a gay Asian man, was asked to join a staff steering committee to advance equity at a healthcare organization in the Greater Toronto Area more than a decade ago, he was honoured. He was at the start of his career and felt the experience would help him advance within the organization.

He prepared the agenda, took notes, created presentations and took on other duties. As a committee member – who fit a few of the demographics the organization was seeking – he was also expected to rely on his experiences of equity and oppression as a gay person of colour and provide insight and feedback to committee members who were predominantly white women.

Mr. An says the administrative support he provided could be considered as part of his regular job, but the advisory component most definitely was not.

The experience left a sour taste, he says. It also underscores how younger staff who are part of equity seeking groups and passionate about advancing equity and self-advocacy are often roped into doing additional work that in the end does nothing to strengthen equity.

“When I worked there, majority of staff, especially almost all of leadership at the organization was white women. To have white women sit on a committee to advance equity in an organization where they hold almost all decision-making power is quite literally the opposite of equity, it does not account for relational power and privilege within the organization.”

Mr. An, who is now the director of operations and industry partnerships at Hospitality Training Action Centre, [HTA 75], says culturally taxed employees naively assume the unpaid DEI work would help with raises, promotion and other opportunities within the company.

Mr. An was a contract worker and hoped his work on the committee would boost his chance of landing a permanent role. That did not happen. He was also not considered for a part-time administrator role in another department.

Food for thought

Some years ago, while working in the U.S., Prof. Ng said he was tasked with developing and implementing the school’s diversity and inclusion plans for which he received little support from the administration. He sacrificed research and personal time and was emotionally beat.

Prof. Ng’s three recommendations [ for organizations] are:

  • Compensate diverse employees fairly or look for resources elsewhere: If you’re asking minority employees to work overtime to advance your DEI efforts, you should compensate them for the work. And also look externally for expertise. Many institutions in Canada offer online resources on how to approach DEI in the workplace.
  • Set limits to the amount of service work: Allow employees to do the jobs they were hired for. Additional DEI service work can be challenging and lead to burnout. Relieving cultural taxation at work can give underrepresented employees the ability to focus on their goals and careers.
  • Involve everyone: Ask all employees to participate in DEI efforts. This can also lead to “perspective taking” among represented employees, and thus allowing them to understand, sometimes for the first time, the experiences that their underrepresented colleagues face at work.

What I’m reading around the web

  • Work environments today are not designed for neurodivergent people. This piece discusses results from a recent study that looked at experiences of neurodivergent graduate students, including how they overcompensate [at work] and self-silence themselves.
  • This article in PWC’s Strategy + Business is for leaders. It discusses what to do when there’s a difference in opinion among your workers around issues critical to your organization’s future.
  • Walter Isaacson’s recently published biography “Elon Musk” offers a fascinating and inside look at one of the controversial thinkers, leaders and innovators of our times.

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