Surviving Sh*tty Work Culture with Nicole Washington | Crooked Media
CATCH UP ON NEW EPISODES OF RADIOLINGO NOW CATCH UP ON NEW EPISODES OF RADIOLINGO NOW
November 09, 2022
Work Appropriate
Surviving Sh*tty Work Culture with Nicole Washington

In This Episode

Hundreds of companies are trying to make their company culture more diverse by instituting surface-level DEI initiatives that stall-out and do very little. Monocultures (usually very white, very male) reproduce themselves. How do you actually change the culture at an organization? Nicole Washington from the Neighborhood Funders Group joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answers questions on how to survive– and maybe even improve– a sh*tty work environment.

Got a workplace quandary you want help figuring out? Head to workappropriate.com and let us know.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, and this is Work Appropriate. [music break] I have this thing that I sometimes do on my Instagram account. What it is, is I ask a question usually about work, sometimes about life, but usually just related to work. And people respond to it either in like the little response box, or they send me a DM and then I post what they respond anonymously. And I noticed a while ago that there was a woman who would respond a lot with a description of a workplace that seemed almost like a fairy tale. And the reason it seemed like a fairy tale is that it was a nonprofit that paid their workers really well, that was incredibly diverse, that had diversity, equity, inclusion, all that stuff just like built into the DNA of the organization. And importantly, this is a Black woman who is telling me I really like working here.

 

Nicole Washington: My name is Nicole Washington. I am a nonprofit operations manager, and I live in New Orleans, Louisiana.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And she just, she’s like, I, I worked at so many bad places. I do not know how this place has figured it out. So I thought that she would be a great person to come on and talk about problems that often afflict non-profit organizations, any sort of organization that does passion work, but also about generally shitty workplace culture. And how she’s quit places where it just feels like there is no way that they can ever figure this out, at least with the way that the organization is currently set up, but also what it feels like to work in a place where it does feel like they’ve figured it out, or at least started to figure it out. [music break] So can you tell me specifically about your organization, Neighborhood Funders Group? Because you actually, you first told me about it a while ago as like a place that somehow, um, was managing to get something diversity and inclusion right. But it’s hard work. And you know, I remember when you told me that there was like a new job and I posted about it and people, people went crazy. They were like, what is this magical organization? So can you tell me what you think makes it a non shitty place to work? Or like maybe just a a good place to work, a healthy place to work?

 

Nicole Washington: I mean, it does feel a little bit like I found a unicorn because I have had—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

 

Nicole Washington: —some really terrible jobs. Um, I think at Neighborhood Funders Group, it sort of just all comes down to respect and the recognition that people are whole, incomplete people with lives and other things outside of work, and that while we are all very connected and feel very motivated by the work that we do, like there are, there are other things, you know, people have families that they have to take care of. One of the things I really like about NFG is that family doesn’t necessarily mean like your parents or your kids. It can mean literally anyone who matters to you. Um, I actually had to drop everything, uh, last Monday to go help a friend who was having a really hard time. Uh, and my boss is like, Okay, great. We’ll reschedule the meeting. You know, let me know when you can get back to it. Um, so those are the things I think that make it a, a good place to work, a great place to work even. In terms of DEI, um, I was actually, we just had like our first in person gathering of all of the staff or most of the staff. And I was looking around the room and I was like, there are like literally no white people here. [laughter] There’s like two white women. And I think that’s it. And I think first of all, that is extremely unusual for me in a non-profit workplace. And I think in—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I was just gonna say, yeah—

 

Nicole Washington: —in any workplace—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —nonprofits—

 

Nicole Washington: —although my last organization was run by, um, a black man and was almost entirely staff of color, which was a really great introduction to New Orleans. Um, Because we have so many different kinds of people, and I mean that in terms of age, although I think we could probably do a little bit better there, uh, in terms of gender identity, in terms of race, like literally everything that you could think of. Um, or almost everything that you could think of. We could do better about people with disabilities, but like we can always do better. Um, but because we have so many different kinds of people, it means that we are tapped into very different groups. Our social circles are different. Um, the places that we graduated from, if there are like. School networks or anything like that, it’s all very different, which means that you, it’s sort of a self fulfilling prophecy, right? Like you get one person in the door who is not like a cis white man, and all of a sudden all the other people through the door are not cis white men. Um, and I, I wish I knew what the secret sauce was and how NFG started doing that.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.

 

Nicole Washington: I haven’t, I’ve only been there for, I think it’s about two and a half years. Um, but I will say that walking in and being interviewed by people who look like me was one of the most refreshing feelings that I have ever had.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Just to backtrack, I wanna first try to explain what NFG does. Um, it’s kind of complex, but I think you probably are good at explaining cuz people ask you what you do and then also just acknowledge for people who have not worked in the non-profit sphere, that it’s a place that is often really, really white. A lot of women. Um, but there’s a lot of monoculture going on in terms of like people coming from similar backgrounds a lot of times.

 

Nicole Washington: Oh, incredibly. I actually made a promise to myself, uh, several jobs ago, several bad jobs ago, that I was no longer going to work for a white man because my mental health couldn’t take it. [laugh] Uh, and it frankly closed off a lot of avenuesmto be, there were a lot of jobs.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

 

Nicole Washington: And I was just like, Nope. Can’t do that. Can, can’t go through the breakdown again.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mm-hmm.

 

Nicole Washington: NFG, Neighborhood Funders Group. So I work for a specific part of NFG called the Amplify Fund. We’re a little bit different in that we actually do make grants. Uh, NFG itself is like a Philanthropy Serving Organization. I think PSO is what they’re called.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: But it’s a home for progressive funders. Uh, it’s for people who foundations and other like, philanthropic partners who wanna make the world a better place to have somewhere to go to talk about best practices, to meet people who are doing the same sort of work or working in the same places, and to generally just like be among like-minds. Um, I think that that actually contributes a lot to the diversity in general because, the sorts of people who are doing that work and who are interested in that work are oftentimes white, but are oftentimes the people who are most affected by these issues, uh, which are people who look like me. And since no one can see me, I’m a Black woman. [music break]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our first question is from Dee, who sort of feels like she’s all alone in her workplace. Our executive producer, Kendra, is going to read it.

 

Dee: I’m a Black female software engineer in my late twenties. I’m going into my third software engineering job, and I was hoping to find some advice for heading off a problem that I’ve experienced in both of my prior roles. I’m always one of the only women, and I’m also generally one of the only people of color. I’m generally surrounded by white men in their late thirties and early forties, and it feels like my coworkers are afraid to be honest or give me constructive criticism about my work. I don’t know if it’s something about me or the way I act, or if it’s because they’re afraid of being perceived as going too hard on a young Black woman. Regardless. It doesn’t help my career growth and it means I’m kind of floating and alone at work all the time. I see my other coworkers getting casual mentorship and having a great rapport with their seniors, but even when I try really hard to establish a great connection, senior folks don’t ask me about my actual work. I ask for feedback and I always get a very general, oh, you’re doing great. Even when I’m pretty sure I’m really not. It makes me feel really isolated and like I’m losing my mind sometimes. Am I imagining the idea of constructive criticism and frequent feedback at work, or am I actually missing out on something vital?

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right, so with obviously the caveat that we don’t know the entire situation here, just reading this description, what do you think is going on here Nicole?

 

Nicole Washington: I mean, my initial inclination is to be like, you probably are doing great work. You’re probably doing excellent work. There probably isn’t a whole lot of constructive criticism to be given, and you’re just being too hard on yourself. That is like my gut reaction, but like, let’s just assume for a minute maybe that like you’re not doing as well as you think you or as I think you are. Um, I would say, oh man, it’s really hard. I’ve been the only one. The only woman, the only Black person, the only Black woman at a lot of different jobs, particularly ones with like sort of, um, I am not in my late twenties, but with white men who were like a generation or so ahead of me. And it’s really rough because. It’s hard to find something that you can relate to them on or that they think they can relate to you on. This is where sports is really good. It’s sort of like this [laughter] perfect thing that like everyone talks about and like can have an opinion about. It’s like the weather. You can have casual conversations about it and like—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

 

Nicole Washington: —that’s a way to people to like see you as a real person and not just as some like scary entity. My advice for this person would be to go outside of thetorganization like—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Mmm.

 

Nicole Washington: —these people, it sounds like are always going to be uncomfortable around you, and that’s not your problem to solve, right? Like if your problem is that you are not getting constructive criticism or feedback and you need mentorship, then you need to go outside of the organization to solve it, which is annoying and terrible, and you shouldn’t have to do that. And it’s extra work. But the fact of the matter is that if this is the way that they’re behaving towards you, I’m not really sure that I would trust what they have to say anyways.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And it also seems, and maybe I’m just getting this vibe, but it seems like these people are well-intentioned white people who are not being good managers or good mentors because they have hangups, that are making it so that they cant talk openly or, or like you said, like they, they view her as like some sort of scary entity, not as just a person who also—

 

Nicole Washington: You all can’t see this, but I’m nodding along. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —who, who wants the same mentorship as anyone would want.

 

Nicole Washington: Yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: What are, what are your experience like if you had any experience like this where you felt like people aren’t talking, they’re like talking to you as a Black woman, not as you, Nicole?

 

Nicole Washington: Talking at you instead of to you.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.

 

Nicole Washington: Yeah. Uh, this goes back to one of my longstanding beefs, which is that not everyone is cut out to be a manager, like moving up in the hierarchy of an organization and doing certain skills better does not automatically mean that you know how to manage people. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No.

 

Nicole Washington: That is a separate concrete skill that not everyone has, and that’s okay. And also a skill that people don’t wanna invest money in. Like if you don’t know how to manage people, like your organization could help you learn, but a lot of them are like, oh no, it’s fine. We’ll just promote you. And you’ll somehow magically out of the ether, like the stork will drop off management skills. [laughter] Um, it’s, I could go on about this forever.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No, this is, this is a theme of this podcast is every, every single episode we somehow talk about this fact, which to me shows just how big of a problem. It is with every single type of workplace, and especially in non-profits, where there’s not a lot of ways to advance within the organization or to get pay raises other than becoming a manager.

 

Nicole Washington: Yep. Other than becoming a manager and sometimes, not even then a lot of the deal with non, I’ve worked in non-profits my entire career with the exception of one organization that I was working for that was a non-profit and briefly became not, and then I left, so it didn’t matter. Um, I have really struggled to find mentorship in the non-profit space. It’s been really hard for me. I would honestly say I don’t really think that I have it. I mean, I have it more now, but still it’s not great. What I ended up doing was I relied on my friends. I have a friend who happens to be a white woman who does the same sort of general work that I do, but was a little bit farther along in her career, and that’s who I use to bounce ideas off of to ask. I, I really relied on my friend group. Um, her in particular, but a bunch of other friends who cover sort of like the gamut, right? Like there are lawyers, there are consultants, there are teachers, just like a whole bunch of people doing a whole bunch of things. Usually though people who are marginalized and hold some sort of marginalized identity. Uh, and so we’re navigating, if not the exact same problem, a similar problem that I am. Uh, and it sucks and it’s annoying, and we shouldn’t have to do that because there are these whole mentorship networks that come built in when you are a white dude, but it is what it is.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and I think sometimes we imagine mentorship as like really replicating the age and experience difference that comes with like, I don’t know, like a senior professor and a student. right? Like you think that you are gonna, your mentor is someone who is at least 20 years older than you, or at least 15, like 10 years. But I think, like you said, sometimes a mentor can be someone who actually has insight and experience in some way into the situation that you’re facing. Right?

 

Nicole Washington: Right. I just need somebody to help me figure out how much money I should be asking for [laughter] or how I should be asking for that money.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Right.

 

Nicole Washington: Or if I need to tweak my resume, like it’s sort of those sorts of things.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: Um, That’s the stuff where I’m like, ooh, who do I ask? Well, I can’t ask this weird boss that won’t really talk to me because he thinks I’m too different from him. So I’ll outsource to my friends and see what happens. Thankfully, my friends are pretty good. They’ve given me solid advice. I have now tried to give that advice to, for instance, my little cousin. She’s not very little. I hope she doesn’t hear this. She’ll be very upset that I called her little. [laughter] Um, she’s always my little cousin though, and she starts to navigate the work world cuz I’m like though your friends have terrible ideas, like don’t y’all are just outta college. Don’t listen to them. Like, here you go. I think the idea of mentorship too, can be, people tend to get really stuck on it, focusing on a specific industry.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: And while that is important, definitely, like maybe you need a, a sponsor, for lack of a better term in that industry really. I think mentorship is about sort of developing those soft skills. I hate calling them that, but I can’t think of a better term at work. And you don’t necessarily need someone in your own company, even in your own industry to do that.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And sometimes someone too who can be outside of your industry and say, the way this is going is not okay. Right?

 

Nicole Washington: Yeah, yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: The way that they’re treating you, the way that they deal with, um, feedback, the way that they talk about compensation, like none of this is okay, and it takes someone who isn’t fully imbricated into the organization to be able to say that to you.

 

Nicole Washington: Yes, which is to say to our letter writer, Dee—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes.

 

Nicole Washington: —you are not losing your mind. I am so sorry. It makes you feel isolated. I, I have been there. I get that. Um, I can’t go down this rabbit hole, but I also have a lot of thoughts on performance reviews and criticism, constructive criticism and feedback at work. I’m very lucky now to work in a workplace where I get sort of like very direct and immediate feedback, which is perfect for me. Like, tell me, I don’t wanna wait for six months for you to catalog my series of wrongs. [laughter] Like if I am messing up right now, or if there’s a better way to do it, tell me right now and I’ll make the change. Or I’ll explain to you why I don’t think I should make the change and we can have a conversation about it. Don’t like. Don’t save it up and just, no, that’s terrible.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No, that’s like the—

 

Nicole Washington: I’m too anxious for that. It’s too, no. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And if you’re just like falling asleep every night thinking about the like demerits that have gone into the little book with your name next to it, it’s so horrible.

 

Nicole Washington: I’m thinking about that anyways, don’t prove me. Right. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Okay. So theoretically, if this person decides that they do wanna stay. Is there anything that they could say to their boss, or is that just like, it’s not gonna get through their head?

 

Nicole Washington: I mean, I think that there are always things that you can say. It just depends, frankly, on how hard you wanna try.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

 

Nicole Washington: Um, I, the thing that kills me about this sort of stuff is that it’s always, the extra work is always being put on the person who has the lower role, least resources, whatever, and that it makes me so angry. But, uh, if I knew I wanted to stay in this job and I wanted to do something about this, here’s what I would do is maybe start scheduling a one-on-one with your boss once a week, once every other week, something like that. Uh, go in with a list of what you’re working on and say, these are the things I have questions about, or, I’d like your feedback on. I think the more specific you could make it, probably the better it would be. Because if you ask someone, oh, how am I doing a good job? It’s very easy to say like, oh yeah, yeah, you’re doing fine. But if you ask someone, hey, I have this, I am not a software engineer, so like, I don’t know, [laughter] but like I have this specific question about this part of the grant report. I’m a little unsure this is what I think I should do. How does that resonate with you? Like the specific questions are a lot harder to sort of like weasel your way outta of. So I think that’s probably what I would do is just come in one-on-one with very specific questions that you can’t give me like a fake answer to. And also, again, don’t be a afraid to push and say, okay, could you tell me more about that? Or, uh, well this is why I was thinking what I was thinking. Like that sort of way to open up a dialogue. That is my best answer, although I would probabl just leave, but that’s always my response. [laughter] It’s just like, life is too short. I’ve waited tables before. I will wait tables again. I’m out.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And there’s no moral valence in quitting a job.

 

Nicole Washington: No.

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our second question is about trying to improve your corner of an unjust world. This question comes from Abby and our producer, Melody is going to read it.

 

Abby: How do you make your workplace less exploitative when the industry’s standard is paying people below a living wage? I ask as someone who works in the arts within academia. The arts industry has a history of unpaid internships or paying artists peanuts because they love their work and academia runs on adjuncts. I am a middle manager trying to advocate for more resources in order to pay my staff better and create living wage positions. What successes has anyone found in advocating for better treatment for their workers when working in a field where the standard is part-time jobs that don’t pay enough to survive? Are there any universities moving away from the overreliance on adjunct faculty? And how have non-profits moved away from unpaid internships?

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So—

 

Nicole Washington: I have a one word answer to this question.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, first I just wanna acknowledge that a lot of these fields, particularly the arts and nonprofits, have a history of being the sort of work that wives would do for like, pin money.

 

Nicole Washington: Yeah.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Pin money is like a, a word for like, oh, it’s just like extra work. Right? So it’s like they, there was just this under this structural understanding that you didn’t need to pay them a living wage because they had a husband who was making the living wage for a family.

 

Nicole Washington: It’s the 1950s version of allowance.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: 100%. And I think. We have not moved away from that understanding, not in the way that nonprofits conceive of how they compensate their employees. So that’s kind of a separate question than what’s happening in academia, but I think we can focus on the nonprofit arts sphere of this. What’s your one word answer though?

 

Nicole Washington: Unionize. That is my one word answer.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. [laughter]

 

Nicole Washington: Uh, and NFG actually just recognized at its employee union, which I am a very proud member of.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Amazing.

 

Nicole Washington: Um, this is the first time I’ve ever been in a union. Is very exciting. Uh, it’s also weird because it has not been a very combative process so far, which is possibly like [laughter] one of the few times that like someone joining or a group of employees joining a union management was like, yeah, that’s a good idea let’s go to the negotiating table [laughter] and like figure this out. Like that is, not normal. Um, I cannot speak to academia, but I can definitely speak to sort of like arts non-profits, the non-profit industry in general, and not being paid a living wage. I think a lot of the concerns are the same. Um, and non-profits. You obviously are very animated and you care about your work, and so somehow that justifies being paid peanuts. Um, I will say coming to NFG is the first time in my adult life and I have been working. For a while that I actually feel like I make enough money that I can live off of.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right.

 

Nicole Washington: Um, which is a wild thing. But this also goes back to one of my other big bugaboos and non-profits, um, which is that. You have to pay people, you have to pay for operations for the backend, for the things that donors don’t wanna fund because they see it as extra.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: I’m using air quotes.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: Um, you, you have to pay, otherwise you have staff turnover. You have terrible, uh, benefits. Like you just, you have to pay people. They are not volunteers. They’re there to work. Work implies a paycheck. First of all. Second of all, in terms of being like a middle manager, I have never been a middle manager, but I do know what I have wanted from my middle managers, which is that, I mean, the answer is to pay people more. The answer just flat out is that you should be paying people more, period. Full stop. End of story. I recognize that that is oftentimes out of your hands, or there’s not really a whole lot you can do about it. So look into scaling back. The work that they’re doing, frankly—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: —like you should act your wage. That’s a, a TikTok thing. Yeah. Sort of like quiet, quitting and all those other, but like, if you are only paying me half of a living wage, then I am only doing half of the work that you are asking me to do. Number one, you should be glad because it means that I will frankly last longer than I would burning out trying to do all of this work for no pay. But also like I think. And this goes back to what you were saying earlier, I think in a lot of these fields, because people are so underpaid and because they do so much great work, there is a very incorrect assumption about how much money it actually takes to do things. Like how much money it takes to run a program, how much money it takes to teach a class. Like if you’re willing to do it for $10 an hour. Even though it actually costs more like $40 an hour, then all of a sudden that $10 an hour is the going rate and everybody gets underpaid. So I think it’s, it’s hard to do anything individually, but I am a big, big believer that if you are in any position of privilege, whether that be because you’re a manager, whether that be because you have seniority, whether that be because you’re better paid than some of your colleagues, like it’s up to you to stick your neck out. And try and bring everyone else like up to whatever level of benefits or money or whatever you have. So I frankly would, uh, revise some work plans and be like, all right, if this is the amount of money that I have to pay people, this is the amount of work we can get done. And that’s that. Also, never ever, ever, ever tell your employees they can’t get part-time jobs like— [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Totally. Well, and that’s the sort of thing that the, like the more subtle work that you can do as a middle manager, when you feel like, okay, I don’t have a lot of power to fight against, like state funding apparatuses. Right.

 

Nicole Washington: Mm hmm.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But I do have power to try to make my employees working lives under me. not as exploitative. So that means cutting the scope of the work. Right. Which I think oftentimes in a lot of different situations, there’s this idea of like, we need to do as much as we possibly can with as little as we can to show how devoted we are to the cause. And that doesn’t serve anyone. It doesn’t serve the people doing the work. It, I think you get like lower quality service in terms of like the way that you serve your community, the, art you produce all those things. And also—

 

Nicole Washington: I mean, not to get into the healthcare field, but also are you like trying to get your doctor to do more with less, like no.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. That’s the thing. [laughter] Yeah, and I think, you know, this is kind of, uh, adjacent to the point, but talking about organizations that are really bad at DEI, and I think a lot of non-profits are really bad at DEI. Part of it is that, you know, if you pay people as if it’s not a full-time job, the only people who can afford to take that job are people for whom it is a part-time. Right. And a lot of times that’s people who are not just partnered, but also who come from wealth, who come from privilege in some capacity. And by wealth I don’t mean like super, super rich. I mean people who don’t have—

 

Nicole Washington: Parents that can afford to subsidize your rent.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, exactly.

 

Nicole Washington: Even if they’re not paying all of it, just like a couple hundred bucks a month can make a huge difference, right? I couldn’t take a single unpaid internship when I was in college. It just was not feasible for me. There was no way that I could be working and not getting paid for my time. I will also say that at every job I have had since then, sometimes more successfully than others, I have campaigned for us to pay our interns because I feel like as someone who is in the role of a full-time employee at the organization, it is the very least I could do.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. If we’re thinking about pipelines, internships are pipelines. If you make internships, exclusive. Then like that’s the, that’s the type of person that’s going to be fed into the field too.

 

Nicole Washington: Right. And it goes back to this whole idea too that like, why are you hiring unpaid interns when you should be hiring a full time employee? [laughter] Like why, that’s why it’s so much cheaper to do this work cuz you’re just straight up like not paying people.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And that I think gets to the heart of like, be honest about the sort of work that needs to be done. Instead of being like, what is the least amount that we could pay someone? To get this work done. It’s not serving anyone. And I think you know, your first point about thinking about unionization, I think this is something we’re seeing across the nonprofit sector right now. And as a middle manager, you might not be able to be part of that union, but you can support it in a lot of other ways too.

 

Nicole Washington: You absolutely can. That is very much the case, uh, at NFG. Also, if anyone listening to this wants to unionize, I will happily give you my email address and we can connect them with some folks that will help.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Amazing. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So for our third question, this is what happens when diversity, equity, inclusion just becomes like a committee. That is crammed into an otherwise dysfunctional workplace. Here’s Katie.

 

Katie: I’m a person of color who works in a digital agency that prides itself on focusing on projects for the public good, despite the fact that it’s constantly patting itself on the back for how open and welcoming it is. There’s a fair amount of resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion work at all. And senior leaders don’t seem to see the problem with DEI activity being done by volunteers who are fitting it in around their frantically busy day jobs. How do I, as someone who suffers because the company can’t or doesn’t want to see that its approach to DEI is pretty basic, cope with the massive gap between itself, image and reality.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So this is the sort of question, which is exactly why I wanted to have you on the podcast. Like I think you are in some ways uniquely equipped to answer a question like this. Like DEI is not an initiative or a committee or an activity. It has to be the entire organization. So what do you think’s going on with this problem? Like how common is this problem? What do you do in a situation like this?

 

Nicole Washington: My immediate thought is that, uh, don’t talk about it, be about it. And if you were constantly talking about how open and welcoming you are, then like that’s a huge red flag for me. [laughter] Um, one of the things I love about NFG is that we don’t, I mean, we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in our work, we don’t use those terms, but we talk about it a lot in our work. But in terms of the actual organization, it’s just baked into everything. So you don’t have to talk about it. You can look around an NFG meeting room and be like, oh yeah, right. You can look at the list of people who are on the board and see, oh yeah, and this is really, really hard, and actually kind of relates a little bit to the last question with the middle manager. Uh, I have a friend who is a white woman who has campaigned for the people that she manages to be paid, um, a stipend. It’s not enough, but it was what she could get, uh, for their volunteer DEI work.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: Um, which is like the very, very, very bare minimum I think, but is a good place to start to say, okay, this is actual work and I really hate that you know, America, capitalism, you have to justify it this way. List out your activities, be like, these are all of the things that I have done. Or that this group of volunteers have done, this is the number of hours that it took. This is the amount of value that we have brought to the company in doing these things, and you need to pay us for them, or we need a reduction in our work responsibilities and our work plan to match up with that. If your company is very loudly padding itself on how open and welcoming it is, patting itself on the back for that. I don’t necessarily know that this approach is gonna go over well with them because it sounds to me like they are doing exactly as much as they feel like they should be doing. And I am of the mind that as a person of color myself, it’s not up to you to do that work, right? Like you did not create this problem. If you want to educate, if you want to push, that’s fine. I personally am not in, that’s not how I operate. Not anymore. It’s too much work. It’s too heavy of a burden to take on, especially with everything else. Um, so. I would start looking for another job personally, or I would start scaling back the amount that I am doing and say, until you pay me to do these extra things, until you pay these volunteers to do these extra things, like I can’t, I have, tell me what I can take off of my plate to do this. Like again, it’s about imposing the real cost on the company. Like, if you really want to do this, this is what it takes and this is how you’re gonna have to budget for it. And whether that be in terms of money or in terms of positions, people like, person hours, all of that.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I feel like oftentimes white people think of DEI as like an add-on that you can add to your Chrome browser.

 

Nicole Washington: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like if you just download DEI onto your browser there, you got it in your organization. Instead of thinking of it the way that I think white people are challenged to think about privilege, which is that part of it is like sharing, it means also giving away some of yours. Right?

 

Nicole Washington: Yep.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So it means that you can’t just be like, all right, like I look at the C-Suite and I’m like, okay, let’s, It’s pretty white in here. Why don’t we hire the head of HR? Or the head of DEI will be a person of color. And then—

 

Nicole Washington: OR sometimes IT, sometimes you can get, get as far as IT. [laughter]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All of that work, the work of diversifying the company of creating equity will fall onto this one person instead of how do we completely rethink the way that the board works? How do we think of rethink the way the promotion works? How do we change it so that we aren’t like the word that people often use to describe nonprofit organizations as snow capped, right? Where it’s like white on the top—

 

Nicole Washington: Yeah, mm-hmm.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laugh] And then and so they have a lot of people in entry level positions. They do a lot of recruiting where they bring in people of color or underrepresented minorities, but no one—

 

Nicole Washington: To underpay them, terrible salaries—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Burn them out, and no one advances up the mountain. So I think you’re right that this is a company that, at least in this current stance, they’re not interested in changing, right?

 

Nicole Washington: No.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: They’re interested in, in having a DEI committee on their website. They’re not interested in—

 

Nicole Washington: They’re interested in the appearance of caring about this. They’re not interested in actually caring about it, which unfortunately, I think is probably very, very, actually, I think it’s probably, it is very, very common. Um, I am a person who has quit jobs without things lined up, has quit jobs with it, has just left jobs cuz I wasn’t feeling it. Uh, and the older I get, the more I’m like that sometimes. Like I, I know we exist in a capital society. I know everyone has bills to pay. I know that if, like me, you were a person of color, there is a great chance that you were supporting people outside of your household as well. But at a certain point you just have to decide how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice to this institution. I am reminded of something that one of my absolute favorite. Twitter, Instagram. Like per, like someone who I just love Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: My fav too.

 

Nicole Washington: —who I think is incredible.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep.

 

Nicole Washington: Uh, but she produced these little, uh, like note cards that said the institution will not love you.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah.

 

Nicole Washington: As my mother always says, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and they will replace you. So it’s, it’s a line for everyone. It depends on where you’re working, where you are in your career, how much you’re getting paid, all that kind of stuff. But you have to decide how much of yourself you are willing to sacrifice to be in that environment.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I think as a sort of follow up question, I want to know in your various job searches, Instead of thinking about the red flags, what have been the signs, the indicators that you think a company is doing the work. So if someone is trying to find a different organization. That they’re not gonna find themselves in a place like where this question author found themselves. What should they be on the lookout if they’re looking for jobs?

 

Nicole Washington: Um, for me personally, I am always researching. I wanna see, I, I’m gonna confine this to nonprofits cuz those are the jobs that I’ve had and the ones that I know the most about. I am looking at your senior leadership team. I’m looking at your program heads. Uh, I’m looking to see if the only, like if you have a mix of people, what you’re identifying about those people on your website. If the only people of color are in support roles or maybe head of HR or something like that, like you’re looking across and, uh, vertically and horizontally in the organization. I, like I said, uh, having like a diversity mission statement or something like that is a little bit of a red flag to me. Uh, but I’m looking at your actual body of work, right? Like, who are you funding? Where are these groups? What kind of work are they doing? I think all of those things give you like a pretty good sense. Also, I’m looking at who you want to interview me, who am I talking to? What is their position? How do they relate in the organization? How many people are there like that? I think you can learn. A lot in an interview and a thing that I had to learn the hard way and that I always try to remind my friends and people I know now is that an interview goes both ways, right? Like you are also learning about the organization and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions if you were someplace where the questions that you were asking are making people upset, like, thats a dead giveaway that you don’t need to be working for that organization.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. If even bringing up the topic is making people feel uncomfortable.

 

Nicole Washington: Yeah, exactly. And I think in, in this, I would like to think that in this day and age, that every recruiter, every person interviewing, should be ready for a question about why the makeup of their staff or their grantees or their program partners or whatever, is the way that it is. And if you don’t have a good answer to that question, like that tells me a lot right there.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: One tip that I heard from an academic is that they would find a person of color who had left the university and email them and say, what was it like to be a person of color in this institution?

 

Nicole Washington: Yes.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And even if you’re not in academia, that’s a little bit easier in academia just cuz CVs all these sorts of thing. But you can pay for a one month, uh, pro subscription to LinkedIn, and that allows you to search previous employees of an organization and you can just kind of go through there. And then you, when you have that premium subscription, you can also message them. And I think this is sort of like the, the low-key type of mentorship that we were talking about before. Like that’s the sort of advice that you can give others, then others can give you before you go to an organization or if you’re just like looking at potential organizations.

 

Nicole Washington: And use your friends, your whisper network people that you know. Um, I live in New Orleans now. I used to live in Washington, DC. When I moved to New Orleans, I sent an email to all my friends that said, hey, I’m moving. If you know anyone that you think I would like, let me know. You can do the same thing like, hey, I’m looking for a job, or I’m looking at this specific position at this company. Does anyone know anything about it or who works there? Have you heard anything? For the places that I’ve worked, I am more than happy to tell you about the things that I did like, did not like why I left, that sort of thing. I also always ask in an interview, why the person before me left the position.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Aha.

 

Nicole Washington: Uh, and you can tell a lot just about. It doesn’t actually matter what they say. You can tell a lot, just by the way, whoever it is answers the question. If they get visibly uncomfortable, if they don’t really have an answer, if, like, you can tell a whole lot just by the way that they respond to that question. Setting aside the actual words coming out of their mouth.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: This has. So wonderful. You have so much wisdom to impart and I hope we get to have you back on the show sometime soon. But thank you again.

 

Nicole Washington: I would love to come back. Thank you so much for having me.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Also, where can people find you and NFG on the internet?

Nicole Washington: Uh, so you can find NFG at nfg.org. Uh, we have a whole new website. It’s very great looking. Uh, I believe that there is a picture of me somewhere on the website if you find it. I will. Write you a thank you email. I don’t know, [laughter]. Um, you can also find me on Instagram and on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @NicoleWdc, so n i c o l e w d c. Um, and my Instagram account is mostly private, but I have one that I post a lot of food pictures on because isn’t that what Instagram is for? And it is @thingsiateormade.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] I love it. Thank you again. [music break] Thanks so much to Nicole Washington for joining me, and thanks to everyone who wrote in with questions about shitty office culture. I’m sure we’ll have many, many episodes about this, so keep them coming. You can find submission guidelines at workappropriate.com, or you can send a voice memo with your question. To Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. I wanna be clear about this. No question is too weird. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. You can sign up for my newsletter at AnneHelen.substack.com. Subscribe to Work Appropriate wherever you get your podcasts. And I’ll meet you here next Wednesday as we answer questions about management. And the question that was also part of this episode, which is what do you do about people who continually get promoted to management positions just because they’re good at their jobs, not because they’re good at actually managing that’s next week, you won’t to miss it.