Preface:  Workplace Undercover will be a recurring segment of this blog, featuring a workplace scenario and a response by a guest consultant.  The scenario below was written by Eillen Bui, our research associate.  Mary Harlan of Harlan Consulting is guest consultant for this scenario.

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The scenario: Carina was recently promoted from Operator Technician to Engineer after working at TLC Co. for 15 years. To Carina, this promotion was bittersweet. She knew that she deserved this position, but felt it should have happened long ago. She was already doing everything the Engineer’s job description entailed years ago and was very experienced. The only thing was that she never earned a degree in engineering; everything she knew, she learned from working at the company.

Tom, the engineer she worked under, would assign Carina his tasks and then would take credit for her work. He even received a raise because of all the work that he was supposedly putting out. Carina would work in the background, believing she never received the credit she deserved.

Carina had many reasons for not wanting to bring up the situation to the partners of the company. She felt that as a female, she would never be considered for the position since only males held that title in her company. She also feared that she would be perceived as a weak, emotional female that would complain whenever she felt a “perceived injustice”.

As a first generation Filipino American, Carina was not as fluent in the American language as she wanted to be. She felt that if she brought up the subject, she would not be able to communicate her point to the partners effectively and that Tom would take that opportunity and discount her.

Carina would fume in the background, thinking that the partners surely knew she was the one who was doing all the work and was just turning a blind eye since Tom had seniority and was a white male, just like them!

The day after receiving her promotion, Carina began wondering whether she could now tell the partners how she had suffered in silence all these years, now she had more of a voice in the company. She suspected what had happened to her was happening to another woman in the company and she thought the partners should know what was going on in their own company. Also, she just couldn’t bear to stay silent any longer.

But would she hurt her career by speaking up? And if she did tell them how she felt, what should she say and how should she say it?

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Today’s Response by Mary Harlan:

Carina, first of all, congratulations on a well deserved promotion! Yours is a difficult and complicated situation. It’s difficult because you must weigh the immediate emotional release you expect to get by speaking up against the longer term potential for backlash if do you speak up. Both options, particularly the potential for backlash are somewhat laden with assumptions. Consider the possibility that you could find a way to share your experience and your perspective in a way that provides insight rather than accuses.

Your situation is complicated because part of it is emotional (the accumulated years of hurt, betrayal, and resentment) and part of it relates to what you experience as fair or just in your work setting.

I would encourage you to work through your emotional charge on this before you do anything. A first step you might take is clearing your emotions to the point that you can sincerely appreciate where people are in the organization and how they have possibly and unconsciously acted out of their cultural conditioning – the way things have always been done in their organization. This could release you from having an emotionally driven agenda with your decision.

Once you have cleared your emotions, if you decide to say nothing, you will be okay your decision. If you decide to speak up, you will be able to do so with clarity of purpose. This clarity will increase the likelihood that your speaking up provides insight and has a positive outcome for others…and decrease the odds that you are perceived as a “weak, emotional female that would complain whenever you felt a perceived injustice”.

When (and if) you share your experience, two points are important to keep in mind:

  • Clarify your intention to share with those in the company regarding how their actions can result in perceptions of injustice.
    • Example: “I’m not sure if you know how or why what you are doing might seem to others such as myself even if this is not your intention. May I share this with you?….
  • Clarify your awareness that your perspective is born out of your history and emotionally-laden for you. This means that it easily could reflect a bias or slanted perspective on your part.
    • Example: “I want you to know that I know that because I was not born in this country, I am probably looking at what is happening here from a different point of view than others here. I feel strongly about this and for this reason, there may be important subtleties about how things are done that I am missing.”

Both of these points can be positive for the other person to hear. Hearing that you don’t think they intend to be hurtful can mitigate the reaction that they could have of feeling falsely accused.

Hearing that you’re aware of your perspective can support their openness to understand much more personally and poignantly how their behaviors impact people in the organization and ultimately performance.

Can you imagine sharing with them your experience in such a way that they thank you and ask you to further share with them your experience and perception? This is the possibility available with cultural understanding, accountability (not blame) for our own history, and forgiveness (both for yourself and others).

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Mary Harlan, President of Harlan Consulting, is a consultant and coach, specializing in change management, cultural competence, diversity, leadership, and teams.  For more information, see www.harlanconsulting.com.  Mary is also a practitioner with Leading Consciously.

Filed under: bridging differencesbuilding effective relationshipsclearing emotionsconscious use of selfhealthy organizationsinitiating changemaking positive changesworkplace dynamics

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