How to talk to your boss when you think a co-worker is being overlooked


When David Green's co-worker, a woman of color, confided in him that she felt overlooked at their workplace, an advertising agency, he was motivated to act. "Her title wasn't what it should have been based on the projects she was doing, and some projects were going to other people less qualified than she was," Green says.

Green, 27, had also noticed that his co-worker was frequently overpowered in meetings and her thoughts were often drowned out. "I witnessed people ignoring her when she would speak, and I didn't take substantive enough action about it, and there are things I wish I had done that I didn't do," he says. 

He decided to talk with his bosses about it.

"The gist [of the conversation] was: 'Hey, this person is really talented and has the experience and she should be getting opportunities that are maybe going to other people,'" he says. 

His bosses agreed with him and thanked him for bringing it to their attention. However, he says, he's not sure what really came of his intervention, if anything. For his co-worker, these problems remained an "ongoing source of unhappiness."

Promotions, like a title bump, are one way minorities are discriminated against and kept from earning the same amount of money as their White counterparts. Approximately 64% of entry level positions are filled by White employees, but 85% of top executives are White, according to data from human resources consulting firm Mercer. Only 6% of executive roles are held by Black women and only 3% by Hispanic women. 

White co-workers speaking up can help narrow the racial wage gap. But saying something can be unnerving, says Pooja Kothari, founder of Boundless Awareness, a company that provides unconscious bias awareness training. "Acting in the moment is the hardest thing to do," she says. "We're not actors on the stage where we know our next line. Our heart beats faster and we get confused as to what our role is. We have fear of retribution." 

Still, there are some steps you can take if a co-worker is being overlooked for opportunities and you'd like to advocate for them. Here's what Kothari and other experts recommend.

'Be vigilant' and notice how people are treated differently

The first step is to see what's actually going on around you.

You may never have noticed that a co-worker of color is being overlooked, but that's probably not because it hasn't happened, says Shamika Dalton, an associate director of the Katz Law Library at the University of Tennessee, who specializes in advocating for racial diversity in higher learning institutions. The discrimination, while common, can also be subtle.

"Be vigilant and constantly think about it, and have it at the forefront of your mind," she says, if you want to see bias when it happens. "It takes constant practice, and you have to constantly want to seek the knowledge." 

You have to constantly want to seek the knowledge.
Shamika Dalton
associate director, Katz Law Library at the University of Tennessee

Pay attention in meetings to who is talking the most, whose ideas are being heard, and who is being asked to do tasks outside their job title. Don't depend on people of color to tell you when they are being overlooked.  

Your managers may not be aware of the issue or primed to see it, either. That's why you have to be "intentional" with how you address discrimination in the workplace, she says.

Understand your privilege 

When Kothari does her unconscious bias training, she notices that many men know they are privileged but still don't fully understand how much privilege they have compared to people of color. 

"Our oppression is much more magnified than the privilege we have," she says. "White men will say, 'If we're going to talk about privilege then yeah, I am a White man,' but they also say, 'My parents are Russian and they had it very hard,' or, 'I grew up really poor.' They don't understand how powerful White men are," especially if they are middle- or upper-middle-class now. 

Until White men recognize that any disadvantage they might have, such as growing up lower-middle class, is outweighed by their race and gender in the workplace, they won't be able to help others. 

Don't be scared to share the work 

Workers need to get in the habit of sharing work, Kothari says: "Abundance is not in hoarding, it is in sharing." 

If you are assigned a high-profile project, for example, and think someone else would be a better fit, mentioning that to your boss will not result in you getting fewer chances. 

"If you have a mainstream identity, whether you are cisgender, especially if you are White, especially if you are a White male, there will never be scarcity for you," Kothari says. "Not in the next 100 years. You're safe. You have an abundance [of professional opportunities]." 

If you have a mainstream identity, whether you are cisgender, especially if you are White, especially if you are a White male, there will never be scarcity for you. Not in the next 100 years. You're safe.
Pooja Kothari
Founder of Boundless Awareness

Talk to your co-worker before talking to your boss 

If you notice a co-worker being talked over at a meeting, or asked to get coffee and take notes when their title implies that they shouldn't be doing those tasks, talk to them about it before taking any action with supervisors. 

Kothari suggests addressing them like this:  "I saw this happened at the meeting and it bothered me. How are you feeling about this?  Would you mind if I did X, Y, and Z about it?" 

Without talking to your co-worker first, you may be going into a "savior-type mission" and speaking on their behalf. You never want to assume to know how someone feels about a situation. Plus, it's better to give the co-worker a head's up before moving forward, she says, since "nobody likes to be surprised." 

Practice how you will speak out

After talking to his co-worker, Green made an effort in meetings to amplify her points. "One thing I did in a meeting, if she was trying to get a point in, is say, 'Everyone listen up,' or if she would get ignored I would try to redirect the conversation to make sure her point was heard," he says. 

It can help to have a few lines prepared so you know exactly what you're going to say when it happens. If you have a mental script, you're more likely to feel comfortable speaking out. 

One thing I did in a meeting, if she was trying to get a point in, is say, 'Everyone, listen up.'
David Green
Creative at Ad Agency

This might not work for everyone, Kothari warns. "Most of us freeze in the moment," she says. "To hold yourself to this degree of confronting misogyny and racism in the moment is so hard." 

Decide what your comfort zone is and act within it. If you're uncomfortable speaking up in a moment's notice, prepare some talking points after the meeting and give yourself a set number of days before going to your boss. 

You can say: "I see my co-worker is not getting some of the projects I am getting and she would be great." 

Don't be accusatory, but be an advocate. Talk about your co-worker's qualifications. If your co-worker is being asked to do tasks below what their job title implies, like coffee runs, ask your boss if it's OK that the next time your co-worker is asked to get coffee, you do it instead. 

While being an ally does not always garner results, that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. If you're scared that nothing will come of your actions and you'll disappoint your co-worker, don't worry, Kothari says. 

"No one is less surprised than a woman of color, queer person of color, or trans person of color at not getting the thing they deserve," she says. "When we find allies that also know what we deserve, that in and of itself is a huge step because access to opportunities is the reason people have been kept down and continue to be kept down in society."

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