It’s not easy to talk about privilege at work, often because people don’t recognise their own. But, as with any unconscious bias, it’s incredibly important for HR and leaders to have this on their radar.
When we look at diversity in the leadership ranks of a business, we often focus on who’s missing. There aren’t enough women, for example, or culturally diverse people. It’s less common to take a good hard look at those who are already at the top and ask how they got here.
Is it because they exhibited a lot of hard work and determination? Most likely. But that’s probably not the only thing that helped them. Many people have been set up for success before they even stepped foot into the workforce.
This includes things like exposure to their high-flying lawyer mother’s professional network, holidaying with their doctor dad’s colleagues or getting hooked up with an internship by their academic professor-turned-mentor.
An early leg-up can determine your future success; not having access to these insights and opportunities early on can mean you’re always one step behind. This is why addressing this unconscious bias, and identifying our own privilege, is critical.
Not got time to read the whole article? Skip to the part that interests you most:
- How to start conversations about privilege and address misconceptions.
- Inciting real change, such as setting targets for class representation on your board and executive team, as KPMG has done.
- Thinking about privilege as an intergenerational cycle that’s often hard to break free from.
- Tips to address privilege, such as ‘debottlenecking’ your team, facilitating mutual mentoring and sponsorship programs, running privilege walks and asking the right questions to assess if you’re letting privilege dictate the decisions you’re making.
Changing the narrative
The reason it can be hard to talk about privilege at work is because we often use it as a buzzword, says Lee Jourdan, who was Chief Diversity Officer at Chevron in the US until June 2021.
“Before it became part of our language in the D&I space, if you said someone was privileged, you pictured them on a yacht, drinking champagne, surrounded by beautiful people,” says Jourdan.
“That’s why when you say someone is privileged, they might get defensive. They’ll tell you how much they struggled or about the challenges they faced. So you never get to the root of why you need to have the conversation.”
Teaching people that having privilege doesn’t always mean you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth is the first step. Even more powerful is demonstrating how people’s privilege correlates with those around them.
Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, founding CEO of mwah (Making Work Absolutely Human) and member of AHRI’s National Inclusion and Diversity Advisory Panel, has an effective and simple way to do this. She calls it the ‘Privilege Tree’ (see below).
“If I don’t know how to climb the trunk, then all I care about is getting a foothold,” says Brighton-Hall.
“I care about a roof over my head, a job and income. If I climb into the tree and get into the beginning of the branches, it’s much prettier than just the trunk. Those people might be the first in their family to get a university degree, for example. They don’t always understand that that’s only the beginning of the leaves.
“A child born in the middle of the tree can see up and down, and they know that career opportunities are about networks, sponsors and extra qualifications.
“When you’re at the top of the tree, you can see other treetops, the sunset, the surrounding city; you can see all the possibilities. When you look up from the bottom of the tree, all you can see is leaves.”
“Before it became part of our language in the D&I space, if you said someone was privileged, you pictured them on a yacht, drinking champagne… That’s why when you say someone is privileged, they might get defensive.” – Lee Jourdan, former Chief Diversity Officer, Chevron, USA.
Statistics show that your boss is likely to be highly privileged, so keep this in mind when deciding how to bring the subject up, says Brighton-Hall.
Her research shows that CEOs and executives are among the most privileged people in our workplaces, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having the conversation. Privilege should be seen as an opportunity to do more for others, she says.
Start lightly, she suggests, and make it a conversation about understanding each other better, rather than forcing them to appreciate the benefits of their privilege.
“Be sensitive to the fact that people will view themselves differently,” she says.
Busting the unconscious bias
Socioeconomic disadvantage is often difficult to measure and identify, says Jourdan, especially if we’re talking about generational low privilege. An employee may have fallen on hard times in their childhood, but has pulled themselves up by the bootstraps to thrive today.
“We don’t always address it because we don’t see it,” he says. “We have to be more proactive at understanding where people have limitations to engage. Those might not be visible elements.”
KPMG UK has taken proactive steps to address this across its entire organisation.
When comparing pay gaps between its employees with professional and working-class backgrounds, the median wage gap was 8.6 per cent.
KPMG has made a commitment that nearly 30 per cent of its UK partners and directors will come from working-class backgrounds by 2030. To reach this target, the firm will introduce new recruitment and talent development programs aimed at lower socioeconomic regions for both middle management and senior roles.
It will also include mandatory training for employees about the realities of coming from a lower socioeconomic background and factor socioeconomic backgrounds into its regular HR processes (i.e. diversity reporting).
Brighton-Hall suggests HR professionals understand the socioeconomic backgrounds of all of their leaders.
“This will tell you if you’re unearthing and nurturing talent or just reinforcing people who are born with privilege,” she says.
The next piece of the puzzle is giving employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds the tools for success.
“If you have First Nations women [joining your business], for example, teach them [promotable skills]. Say, ‘This is how talent management works. This is how networking works. This is how sponsorship works.’ They’re smart; they’ll pick it up.
“We need to get past the ‘the world’s not fair’ conversation, because it’s not. Now what are we going to do about it?
Some people might think it’s strange to have to train someone to network or comfortably take up space in a boardroom. That’s because it’s probably second nature to them.
This confidence is often a byproduct of the things that were discussed around the dinner table during childhood, says Brighton-Hall.
“If you grew up in a family who are farmers, at dinner time you learned to talk about sustainable dairy. If you grow up in a family who are coal miners you learned to talk about safety,” she says.
“But if you grow up in a family where your parents are partners of a law firm, then the conversation is careers, it’s networks, it’s fundraising. It’s a whole bunch of things that coal miner’s kids might not know.”
Give your team the tools to identify and stamp out unconscious bias in the workplace with this short course from AHRI.
Intergenerational privilege – the benefits of an ‘Uncle Bob’
Not only do certain people develop the right language and roadmaps early in their lives, they also meet the right people.
“When you finish uni, the person who had opportunities through their parents’ network, which are often family friends – someone they call Uncle Bob – benefit. This means that for those who come out against them, even if they have the same degree and are great, they don’t have Uncle Bob helping them,” she says.
Jourdan has a great example of this intergenerational privilege in action. A former colleague of his, a white man who’d been an executive at Chevron for a long time, was talking about how his daughter had grown up interacting with his executive colleagues at events throughout her childhood.
“It struck him when he had a get together with friends and families, and told his daughter, who was working for the company by then, to bring some friends along. She did, and many hadn’t come from the same background, so they didn’t have that sense of comfort. They were stilted throughout the entire event, whereas she was very free and comfortable.”
Having an Uncle Bob in your corner can accelerate your career in very impactful ways, as does belonging to the ‘right’ group.
Organisations often pull graduates from the same universities, says Jourdan. This creates unintentional in-and-out-group dynamics, or an affiliation bias, which are often indicative of people’s socioeconomic status.
“Those people become a fraternity of friends,” he says. “They’ll be walking down the halls and see someone they went to university with, so they might start the [university] fight song, for instance.
“They’ve built a connection. So when a project comes along, they’ll give that opportunity to their friend. A few months down the track, that friend might get another opportunity because they did the last one so well. Now they have a two-up on someone who didn’t have that connection.
“It’s important for leaders to recognise when they might be doing that. Ask, ‘Am I leaning into someone because of my alumni affiliation or because we grew up in the same area?’
All of those connections can create a privilege that you’re not even aware of.”
How to close the privilege gap
As with most diversity metrics, we often have to address our unconscious biases before we can make progress.
Brighton-Hall says this should be done from the beginning of a person’s career. She recalled an employer that was trying to differentiate between a list of great graduates.
“The first things they looked at were, ‘Do they have a good education and the right qualifications?’ Those things can be hard if you grew up poor, but not impossible to achieve.”
Most graduates had both, so next they layered volunteering experience into the mix.
“They said… let’s look for people with overseas volunteering experience,” she says. They ended up with a homogeneous group who went through the same types of schools, universities and volunteer programs.
“If you grew up in a socioeconomic middle class, let alone a lower class, you would’ve had to work through your uni holidays and on weekends, so volunteering doesn’t fit in – certainly not overseas volunteering. That could cost you around $5000 for airfares alone.”
To avoid letting affiliation bias creep in, make sure you run decision-making metrics for hiring and succession planning through a third party – someone who can offer a different perspective, says Brighton-Hall.
“If you grow up in a family who are coal miners you learned to talk about safety. But if you grow up in a family where your parents are partners of a law firm, then the conversation is careers, it’s networks, it’s fundraising. It’s a whole bunch of things that coal miner’s kids might not know.” – Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, Founding CEO of mwah
In terms of teaching promotable skills, it’s often the little things that make all the difference, such as how to conduct yourself in a networking situation.
“A way you can teach them to be more confident is to say, ‘If you’re not confident to walk into the middle of a room and charm people with your hilarious humour, or you’re really shy and unable to speak to strangers, the best thing to do is to find someone who looks a bit lost on the outside of the group and go and practice your conversation with them,” she says.
Leaders also play a strong role in starting conversations about privilege, both Jourdan and Brighton-Hall say. Sharing how their background might have boosted or hamstrung their success helps others start the conversation. Equally effective is taking the time to find commonalities between seemingly disparate groups of people.
There are a few other ways you can start addressing privilege in your organisation, such as:
Introduce ‘de-bottlenecking’ – “This is a process that’s used in the oil and gas industry when they’re introducing a new product, where they assess and reconfigure the bottlenecks to take the process from 85 per cent effectiveness to 95 per cent,” says Jourdan.
“The same thing should happen in a team. You need to figure out how to tweak that team, and how to extract more out of the quiet ones, or understand who in that group isn’t part of a majority and may feel like they need to do more than others to be heard.
“[If you don’t do this], that means you’ve already paid for that investment and you’re not getting the most out of it. No one would ever not de-bottleneck an oil refinery – there’s an extra ten per cent sitting in there that’s waiting to be taken.”
Run a privilege walk – Activities such as privilege walks are a great way to help to open other people’s eyes to the privilege, or lack thereof, that exists within their own teams. HRM has created an infographic walking you through how you can run one with your team. You can access the infographic here.
Ask the right questions – In his Harvard Business Review article on talking about privilege at work, Jourdan suggests asking the following questions to see if privilege is silencing anyone:
Who isn’t speaking up in meetings?
Who is the majority group in your organisation, and what positions do they hold?
Who is automatically given the benefit of the doubt?
Think about your go-to person. Then think about the last person you’d go to. Assess why that is. You might be leaving value on the table.
Who has to work harder to prove themselves?
Whose opinions do you default to?
Facilitate mutual mentoring – “This is a simple process where you ask people in the organisation to find someone who is different from them… and talk about your experiences: your challenges, where you think you may have privilege and where you may not. That broadens perspectives in ways you haven’t seen before,” says Jourdan.
When he meets someone for the first time, Jourdan asks them to tell him about their journey, starting from where they grew up. As he listens, he looks for a common link.
“That way it starts with something positive, rather than asking someone to tell you about their struggles. If they want to, they can sprinkle in some of the challenges they’ve faced along the way.”
Introduce formal sponsorship opportunities – “Mentors talk to you; sponsors talk about you. They advocate for you, provide opportunities and open doors. But in most organisations, sponsorship is informal.
“To refer back to my previous alumni example, they were advocating for each other because they went to the same school.
“If we asked everyone out there who they were advocating for – because like likes like, at least in the West – we’d find more white males getting sponsorship.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the December/January edition of HRM magazine.