Although many companies are now showing vocal support for the #BlackLivesMatter protests, there are plenty who are not. If you find yourself working in a place where company culture, or worse, the company’s actual actions, go against the values you hold, what are your options? Should you just quit, as two high level workers at a prominent, polarizing social media brand did recently, in order to protest their CEO’s inaction? Or is it more important to stay and try to force change from within?
The answer, according to Ancella Livers, chief innovation officer at Talent Dimensions, a company that specializes in employee engagement, retention and career development, isn’t as cut-and-dried as you might think. “Let’s say I’m at this company and its behaviors, and just the way it goes about business, aren’t my values,” she explains. “I have to figure out what I’m trying to do. Am I just staying here to remind people that you’re bad people? Am I trying to shift something, and if so, what is the likelihood of my actually shifting it? Am I in the right places at the right times with the right people? Do I have the presence that people are going to hear me? Do I have the presence that people are going to listen to me, or am I sitting out here in the woods yelling in the forest for the next 15 years?”
Livers insists that if you decide to stay and attempt to change your company’s values from the inside, you have to be prepared for the consequences. “Am I going to become a pariah? ‘Oh my God, here comes Ancella again, ugh.’ Right? ‘Make the bad lady go away, she will not shut up.’ And if that’s the case, am I okay with being the pariah?”
In other words, you really have to do some soul searching about what it means to stay to help bring about change from within.
Practically speaking, Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, agrees with Livers in the sense that you can certainly voice your concerns with your manager or someone in HR, but there’s no guarantee this will change anything. “If the topic has come up in conversations with some of your colleagues who share the same frustrations, it’s best to coordinate your communication with management,” she says. “If you can’t imagine continuing to work for an organization whose values don’t align with yours, then it may be time to consider a position at another company.”
However, Augustine warns, while actions speak louder than words, it’s always better to secure a new position before quitting your current job, especially in this uncertain economy. “Will one person quitting change a company’s policy — or non-policy — on diversity and inclusion?” says Augustine. “The hard truth is, probably no. But, one person’s actions can inspire others to act, too. Change never occurs if someone isn’t willing to start.”
All of which is to say that there’s no reliable roadmap for making decisions like this. But both Livers and Augustine agree that the consequences of these decisions are different for everyone. “When a senior exec of an organization stands up and leaves on principle, people notice,” says Livers. “Now, again, they’re paying a different kind of price. They’re probably not as worried about being hungry, so it’s a little bit easier to stand up on our principles when the dinner will be there tomorrow. But the publicity and the social capital loss, it can be pretty significant.”
Livers points to the example set by Colin Kaepernick as a case study in how these decisions affect people differently, based on their social standing and the color of their skin. “Here we have ourselves a perfect example in some ways of a person choosing their principles, and he lost a lot,” she says. “He’s got some cash, but the fact is, the thing that he loved, he’s been blackballed from. Pun intended. And so there was a real cost. He paid a price, a significant price.”
But, she says, had the man taking a knee been a white player, the price would have never been as high. “Oh, we’d be mad at him,” she says. “‘I don’t know why Tom Brady went out there and took a knee!’ ‘What’s going on with Tom Brady? Oh my God.’ And then say, ‘You know, that guy can throw. You see how we won that game the other day?’ And after about three or four games, we would have forgotten the ‘ugly knee incident.’ We would have forgiven him.”
In the context of a more typical workplace, she continues, “When the senior executive of color, in this case, walks out, that consequence is going to be different. They might not get another job at that level. Then we lose a senior level person of color. It’s not as easy for them to find another job at that level.”
Which brings us back to the issue at the aforementioned social media brand, where, as mentioned earlier, two white software engineers quit their jobs to protest a decision to not rebuke speech that promotes hatred and violence. Livers tells me that the actions of the individuals who left their jobs are commendable, even brave, although it will obviously take more engineers at the company to leave their desks for any permanent change.
But Livers also wants to be clear that, when those who aren’t people of color stand for what’s right in support of Black people, in many ways, it’s a saving of their own soul, a willingness to see beyond their “privilege that encases this country in diamond facets that cut everything that’s not their own.” “And so, it takes something to stand up and be willing to recognize that what you have isn’t a gift, it’s a privilege,” she says. “It’s not because you’re special. It’s because society is rigged and because so many lives have been pulled for so many people over so many hundreds of years that white folks can have the luxury of not having to speak and of not having to take a knee.”