What You Need to Know About the ‘I Refuse’ Movement Among Employees

Public statements have never done much for me. When politicians speak about their plans or corporate leaders announce their views on racial inequity, the next obvious question I ask is: “Yeah, but what are you doing beyond talking about it?”

So when award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced earlier this month that she was rejecting UNC’s offer for tenure and headed to Howard University, I dug into her extensive statement to better understand the reasoning for her decision, never expecting the magnitude of her decision would hit me like a ton of bricks. She wrote:

“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.”

In those 43 words, she captured what so many people of color and working mothers have felt about the workplace for so long. And after a horrific seventeen months of a pandemic, when many of us have had to choose between work and family — but also saw the bright spots of not coming into an office and the daily ritual of code-switching and microaggressions — when Hannah-Jones uttered “I refuse”, it resonated with so many who suddenly felt empowered by choice.

My father arrived in the United States with $8 in his pocket; my parents raised my brother and me to work twice as hard as everyone else, with the implicit understanding that we’d only make it half as far. Three years ago, during a time in my life when working at a high-growth company and mothering two kids under two had me stretched thinner than imaginable, a friend sent me a quote from Gloria Steinem: “It’s important for someone who could play the game– and win– to say: The game isn’t worth s**t.”

Looking around, there weren’t a lot of corporate leaders telling you the struggle wasn’t worth it. And when I reflected on my own career, my first performance review lauded me for responding to emails at midnight and being “the first in the office, and last to leave.” So if my entire career at this point was about becoming a varsity player of the game only to realize it wasn’t for me, I had two choices: leave the game entirely or play it on my terms.

Fast forward to a global pandemic and the greatest work experiment in our time, the last seventeen months have proven to the world that the 9-5, always-on game is ridiculous. And I am not alone: many have realized that the game of presentee-ism– clocking hours, and code-switching– is a sham. It prompted the “great resignation” and the YOLO movement: 72 percent of Black, 68 percent of Hispanic, and 65 percent of Asian respondents are actively looking or considering looking for new opportunities in the coming year, compared with 51 percent of white employees surveyed.

So as employees are rightfully reclaiming their power and are saying “I refuse” with their feet, how can leaders respond?

1. Normalize flexibility

Flexible work isn’t going to cure workplace bias, but it can help with inclusion. Data shows that employees of color (Asian, Black, Hispanic) hold a higher sense of belonging when working remotely (compared with working in the office) and relative to their white counterparts.

And this sentiment translates into return-to-office preferences: 80 percent of Black, 78 percent of Hispanic, and 77 percent of Asian respondents want a flexible working experience, either through a hybrid or remote-only model.

But flexible working isn’t just about where people work, it’s also about when they work. The quest for “work-life balance” is no longer a mirage, as people now see the beauty in the blend: being better able to take care of family and personal obligations during the day while working.

Before the pandemic, I never thought it was possible to coach my daughter’s soccer team, drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment, or take my kids to the park on a moment’s notice — those were moments reserved for outside of working hours or on my days off. I cringe when I think about sprinting to make the pick-up time at school, all because I couldn’t get out of a conversation with a chatty executive.

But now I realize that it’s my role as a leader to do, own it, and be open about it — people are demanding workplaces that can support their lives and let them bring their whole selves. Stage one of “I refuse” is going back to the old way of working, especially in response to CEOs who say that we lack hustle or are disengaged, while other career options await us.

2. Lead with trust and transparency, not face time

Classic manager training encourages leaders to serve as gatekeepers and taskmasters rather than coaches. And it’s propagating this culture of burnout: Nearly half of Hispanic (47 percent), Asian (46 percent) and Black respondents (45 percent) say they feel pressure to let their colleagues or manager know that they are “at work” and being productive, compared with 38 percent of white respondents.

Most managers are not trained to lead distributed teams. As many companies move to flexible work models, they need their primarily white (and often male) managers to be able to coach for a variety of experiences, particularly those that look fundamentally different from their own.

Countless times in my career, I’ve been told that I need to be “more [fill in the blank with a personality trait that I’ll never have]”, rather than actually understanding the context of who I am today. As part of the onboarding process on my team, I no longer ask people to start off with their “first project”. Rather, they should spend the first two weeks putting together their own “personal operating manual” and career development plans.

Getting a view into how my team members operate and their own motivators (and detractors) will better enable me to do my job of sponsoring, mentoring and facilitating access to my own network. Managing for inclusion requires an intentional shift for managers from taskmaster to coach, and it takes work and can be uncomfortable. Leaders need to ensure they are training and rewarding their managers to make that move.

3. Ditch outdated norms of professionalism

During a mock consulting interview in business school, I was once told that I needed to “tame [my] hair.” Needless to say, that was my first and last step toward a career in consulting. Microaggressions are real in the office context, and can often come from leaders within the organization: 67 percent of Black employees feel they are treated fairly at work, compared to 79 percent of white employees.

When delivering feedback or looking at promotions, check yourself and your exec team when evaluating someone based on outdated norms — from being “too aggressive” to “not being vocal enough.” There’s a reason why 90 percent of F500 CEOs are white men and those numbers are not improving, and why employees of color are often punished for creating friction during team discussions or decisions.

Drop the case for culture-fit, as it’s another driver in the “I refuse” movement; focus on how your employees are contributing to your business and your intended outcomes, not how they should conform to the ideal model employee.

Look at your highest-ranked performers and actually look at the diversity of the group. If they all look like you, then that’s a problem. While having diverse voices come together may create more short-term friction, the end result is indisputable: the ideas and outcomes are richer, more accurate, and stress tested.

During the stressful period I mentioned earlier in the article, a trusted mentor told me that I “needed to stay in the workforce to show that [I] made it and it can be done.” I felt both extreme motivation and immense pressure upon hearing those words. But as I reflected on Hannah-Jones decision, I realized the power in “showing it can be done” on my terms, not theirs. Because that’s what success is all about. It’s not the number of hours we sat at our desks; it’s the ability to live the life you want to lead on your own terms. And I can’t refuse the appeal of that.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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