Making sure the people around you feel supported, seen and respected leads to a healthy, happy workplace, one in which everyone feels comfortable and able to perform at their best.

Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer

November 14, 2023

6 Min Read

A few years back, at a previous job, a male coworker — someone I had actually never officially met — began touching my braids and asking questions about them as I was getting a cup of coffee. How much does it cost to maintain? How much time do I spend styling it?

Instantly, I tensed up. I knew he did not ask those questions with any malicious intent and I never felt like my safety was threatened. But let’s think about it — who walks up to a stranger and runs their hands through someone else’s hair? Not only was he touching me without permission, but he was also putting me in a position where I had to carefully think about my next move. Too docile and he may think that this is an okay thing to do. Too assertive and I may be labeled “the angry Black woman.” Eventually, I just gave him a short reply and walked away.

Sadly, this was not the first time I had encountered someone walking up to me to run their hands through my braids in the workplace. While it may seem like a small incident, instances like these can make people feel dehumanized and othered. For Black women, who often are the target of hair discrimination in the workplace, the implications of these interactions go beyond discomfort: Research has shown that Black women’s hair is two-and-a-half times more likely to be perceived as unprofessional. It’s also important to note that the focus on one’s hair can start at an early age. When checking in with one of Progress’ Black employee resource group leaders on the topic, she shared that her daughter experienced something similar at five years old — from her teacher.

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A thought crossed my mind: What if someone had stepped in and told my coworker that his actions were inappropriate? What if someone had approached me after the fact and let me know that they saw it, and knew it was wrong? What if I didn’t have to handle it all alone?

At work, you often hear about the importance of showing up for yourself. Self-promotion is a necessary and hard-learned skill for coming into new opportunities and advancing professionally. However, it’s just as important — and just as difficult — to show up for others. Making sure the people around you feel supported, seen and respected leads to a healthy, happy workplace, one in which everyone feels comfortable and able to perform at their best.

Obviously, this is more easily said than done. Whether you yourself are part of a marginalized group or you have co-workers who are, you’ve likely witnessed incidents of judgment or exclusion at work. Microaggressions — comments or actions that subtly and subconsciously express prejudice toward a member of a marginalized group — happen every day in work environments. And these “small” occurrences can really add up.

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The prevalence of microaggressions in the workplace has become glaringly clear in the last few years with the rise of remote work. A 2021 survey found that Black and Hispanic workers’ sense of belonging and fair treatment rose significantly when they began working from home. Many women seem to feel similarly: More than 60 percent said they feel more energized working from home and 58 percent said they are more engaged.

While hybrid and remote working environments have eased some of the stress and anxiety felt by members of marginalized groups, the new model has also created some unprecedented issues. Working from home means fewer in-person interactions, which could lead to remote employees getting passed over for promotions or new opportunities. About 42 percent of managers say they sometimes forget about remote workers when assigning tasks, and nearly 70 percent of supervisors believe remote workers are more easily replaceable than onsite employees.

If more employees in marginalized groups are choosing to work remotely, it could stall efforts to increase diversity — which is the last thing many companies need. Axios recently reported that a disproportionate percentage of tech employees laid off since the fall of 2022 appear to be women — a stat that’s even more troubling when you consider the fact that women have been historically underrepresented in the tech industry.

In this new era of work, showing up for your coworkers is just as important as it’s ever been. In any working environment, remote or otherwise, you have the power to support your colleagues in marginalized groups, even if you yourself are part of a traditionally disadvantaged group. But how do you know if you’re doing it “right”? How can you work through the discomfort of speaking up?

See Something, Say Something

When you think about ways of showing up for your coworkers, speaking up may be the most obvious. If you see something that isn’t okay, standing by your colleague and letting the other person know that their actions were inappropriate can go a long way.

Think about a time when you felt judged, belittled or condescended at work and no one said a word. Imagine how much it would have meant for someone to have said something. Or maybe you don’t have to imagine it — maybe there was a time when someone came to your defense and shut down whatever the other person was doing or saying. I bet you remember it well.

Speaking up doesn’t always have to happen in front of a group, either. Sometimes, it’s more than enough to reach out to someone after the fact and just let them know that you saw what happened, that you don’t agree with it, and that you support them.

Keep Your Colleagues in Mind

Showing up for your coworkers doesn’t always have to be a response to something negative. It can also mean offering opportunities to those who may otherwise get overlooked, or recommending someone for a promotion you know they deserve but may not receive. This is especially important in male-dominated industries: Recognizing and rewarding your female coworkers can make all the difference.

You can also consider the challenges your colleagues may be facing at work. If someone with disabilities is in need of basic things, like computer equipment or captioning during virtual meetings, help advocate for them. If you work with individuals whose first language isn’t your native language, think about slowing your pace when you talk to them. Showing up can be as simple as thinking of others.

Stand by Your Coworkers

When your coworkers share stories of discrimination in the workplace, stand by them. Don’t question them or tell them they must have misinterpreted something — they know what they experienced. Being in their corner will help them feel empowered to take action and know that someone will back them up in the future.

It’s never comfortable to learn that someone is uncomfortable in the workplace, whether in-person or online. Showing up for those around you doesn’t have to be a grand gesture; sometimes, it’s enough to let someone know that you see them and you support them.

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About the Author(s)

Shirley Knowles

Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, Progress Software

Shirley Knowles is chief inclusion and diversity officer for Progress. A DE&I influencer and speaker, Knowles earned a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University, master’s degrees from Simmons College – Simmons School of Management and North Central College, and a Ph.D. from Northeastern University. In addition, she earned certification in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace from USF Corporate Training and Professional Education.  

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