I have a clear memory of being on a work retreat with my company’s executive team. Though I was new to the role of Head of HR, I was amongst peers. After a working lunch, as folks prepared for the next activity, it became instantly apparent that I was expected to be doing the tidying up. Nothing in my job title stated, “clean up after your co-workers,” but there was an implicit expectation that it was my job to complete. The expectation that I was the one to clean up was not lost on me either. I was, after all, the only woman and person of color on that team.
The truth is, there is a lot of “office housekeeping” that has to be done each day to keep our work humming. Even in Covid, there is “housekeeping.” “Who will order lunch?” “Who will take notes or schedule the next meeting?” If there is a woman, particularly a woman of color, in the room, bets are she will be the one tasked with that responsibility even if it’s not part of her role.
Currently, the advice in business circles is how women can refuse to do that labor. What words should she say or ways she needs to signal that her role is equal to her peers. It is seen as our responsibility to not only do the labor of making an office run but also of educating folks why it’s not our job.
But is it women, and particularly women of color, that need to change their behavior? Should we not be asking men, specifically white men, to change their assumptions about this work?
You Can’t Be An Ally If You Think Something Is Beneath You.
If you are reading this and wondering, “Oh crap, have I shown up like this?” Here are tips for you!
1. Load the damn dishwasher. Take the notes. Order the lunch. Yes, it’s not your job, but I suspect it’s not hers either. If you think these types of tasks are “beneath you,” then you believe there is someone beneath you. You are not so quietly signaling that you hold a higher rank, and you see yourself as more important.
2. Don’t ask, “how can I help?” Instead, ask, “what can I do?” Helping assumes that the task is someone else’s and you are offering to pitch in. But “what can I do” takes joint ownership, and you are asking for guidance in determining what other duties are left to complete.
3. Ask yourself, “why?” Why have I not helped with these office tasks, who is doing them, what are my actions and inactions signaling to those around me? Trust me when I say the women of color in your office are noticing your actions or inactions; it’s about time you start.
4. Don’t ask for recognition. Asking reminds me of the old Chris Rock joke where people look for validation when they say, “I take care of my kids”… you’re supposed to. No one is giving me a gold star for picking up the dirty dishes in the conference room; you should not get one either.
While you are running to your next meeting, I am busy loading the dishwasher. I am taking notes while you are asking questions and getting noticed. You are moving ahead,off while I am being asked to stay behind, clean up, and clear your path.
If you are not willing to share the burden of office housework with me, you are subtly saying that you are not willing to share office power with me.
If you are looking to be an ally, this is what it looks like. It looks like you, doing the “little things” and not looking for someone else to do it for you. It looks like you, sharing the load so that I can share power.
Katie Augsburger is a Founding Partner and Employee Experience Strategist for Future Work Design. She has been creating and implementing successful human resources programs for over 15 years. Her work has helped organizations win Oregon’s Best Company To Work, Fortune Magazine’s Most Flexible Workplace, and Fortune Magazine’s Top Consulting Firms among others. Katie has an M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction as well as a B.S in Sociology. She is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) and Certified Compensation Professional (CCP).