How to use your voice and privilege to bolster workplace safety

Simple ways to make the workplace a safer place for others

How are you using your voice and privilege at work to make it a safer place for others?

In any conversation about privilege, people can get edgy and uncomfortable. In any conversation about how ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, white privilege, and other bias and barriers play out in the workplace, people ask us, ‘but what can we actually do about it?’

Here are some very simple and practical ways we can all use our voice and privilege inside our workplaces.

  • Accept that bias, barriers, and microaggressions exist, whether or not you’ve personally experienced them. Accept that people with marginalised identities are highly likely to be experiencing them in your workplace. Educate yourself, and don’t ask these colleagues to justify or explain – they do not need to be in ‘convincer’ mode. Be someone who believes others and is willing to be humbled by others’ lived experiences. You may well feel defensive or find yourself in denial. Notice where you (and others in the majority culture) seek to minimise, deny or reject others’ lived experiences. Do your own work.
  • Calling out and calling in. Educate yourself about microaggressions and the barriers that those with different privileges and access to you experience. Believe your colleagues when they share their lived experiences. Call out microaggressions when you notice them happening, and call in your colleagues to behave more inclusively. If you hold privilege in a group, then use your voice to speak up.
  • Talk about the kind of culture you want to create. Start conversations in your team about what an inclusive team looks, feels and sounds like. Talk about psychological safety, mental health and wellbeing, trust, belonging and the conditions and behaviours that create it. Have an open conversation with colleagues about what you will personally commit to and invite their contributions and commitments too.
  • Create space at the table. Invite others into the rooms where you have access, for example, panels, speaker gigs, board meetings, presentations to the senior team, etc. Pull up more chairs, and create more space at the table. Interrupt the ‘sameness’ and disrupt the mix with new fresh faces and perspectives.
  • Extend Opportunity. Open doors for stretch assignments, promotions, and exciting new projects. Who do you usually offer these to? Do they look and sound like you? When you’re part of discussions about others’ development opportunities and career progression – for example, stretch assignments, mentorships, training and learning, promotions, lists of ‘talent’, opportunities for growth – advocate for those who have less privilege and access, and who may not be in the room when these conversations are happening.
  • Increase visibility. So many women tell us how senior colleagues consistently take credit for their work. Who can you speak about and mention when they are not in the room, and whose work can you affirm and make more visible to senior stakeholders? 
  • Manage the air time. Women and those with marginalised identities tend to speak less in meetings (but people may perceive they speak more), are spoken over and interrupted at a higher rate than those who fit the majority workplace cultures. Notice who takes up the air time in your meetings and proactively use your power to ensure equity in air time.
  • Amplify your colleagues’ voices and ideas. As well as less air time, we know that women and marginalised groups routinely have their ideas snatched during meetings. Notice who initiates an idea and who repeats it, acknowledging the initiator so that these ideas can gain traction. Whose contribution can you amplify?
  • Know when to stay quiet and when to speak up. If you’re the person with the most privilege in a room, stay quiet! Use the opportunity to listen, invite others to speak and learn from the diverse perspectives around the table. If you’re in a meeting with someone who is minoritised, encourage them to speak up, support their suggestions and back their ideas.
  • Review sponsorship and mentoring. You might be mentoring others and acting as a sponsor for others’ development already – that’s great. Take a scan and check do they look and sound like you? Do they look like the norm and default in your company? How can you extend your mentorship and sponsorship to those with less access and support and experiencing greater barriers in your workplace?

It takes humility to acknowledge our own privilege. It takes courage to work through the discomfort to speak up and use our voice. It takes compassion for ourselves to choose to keep unlearning and re-learning. It takes intentionality and focus to not just ‘park’ this work or leave it to others, but to actually ‘do the work’.

When we can acknowledge the privilege, we carry and hold our own identity without guilt, blame or shame. When we recognise that we are part of workplace systems that oppress others, we can choose to perpetuate or disrupt. When we realise that this is a lifelong journey, that we are a work in progress and accept that we’re going for progress, not perfection …. we can activate ourselves and start anyway!

Katy Murray is a diversity, equity & inclusion consultant specialising in leadership development and the author of Change Makers: A Woman’s Guide to Stepping Up Without Burning Out At Work

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