Look For Powerful Allies When You Enter Hostile Workplaces

Do you have a squad to watch your back?

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

One of my favorite Medium writers is Toni Crowe, who regularly shares tales from her time as a corporate executive dealing with arrogant men who underestimated her.

I marvel at Toni’s leadership, her courage, and her grit in what have been hostile workplaces, especially after reading essays like this one:

It also helps that Toni is a master storyteller! I also loved reading this essay by another master storyteller, Denise Jones:

I cheered aloud when I read Denise’s story about how her male colleagues reacted after learning of the sexist candidate who winked at and asked Denise for more coffee when she walked him to the interview room.

They entered the interview room, and while handing the candidate his now-refilled cup of coffee, said: “Hey, we see you met the hiring manager on your way in! How did that go?”

Talk about the perfect response to a sexist pig!

Toni and Denise offer perspectives that make me grateful that I’ve spent my entire career in mission-driven organizations populated with mostly women colleagues. The two of them worked in far different workplaces and remind me that women entering a male-dominated industry will often face resistance and outright hostility.

Even though my 20 years of professional experience have been earned in far friendlier waters, I have had had to learn to cultivate allies. There are different metrics for success when you can’t calculate sales or profits, but you still need to know how to navigate potentially sensitive workplace dynamics.

1. Look for your allies (men and women) to help sustain you as you face the inevitable crap that others (including some women) will lob at you.

You need people on your side who will look out for you and step up to support you. A life partner can sometimes do this, but it helps to have allies in your office who know the personalities and practices of the players.

You need your squad to reassure you that yes, you are being bullied; yes, someone else just tried to take credit for your work; or yes, it is gaslighting. They can also keep an eye out for you and warn you of potential problems.

I appreciated being able to rely on a colleague to confirm it wasn’t just “in my head” that our new boss was trying to do an end-run around me to cut me out of a project. If I didn’t have someone I trusted in the same office to verify my initial perception, I would have kept questioning whether I was overreacting.

I also was grateful when another colleague warned me that our new boss threw me under the bus when trying to explain to her boss why there was a mishap. It spurred me to directly reach out to her boss to make sure he knew the actual details. I always try to play nicely in the sandbox, but I will defend myself when attacked.

2. Ideally, at least some of the people on your squad will have more authority, power, or leverage than you.

These are the people who can help mentor you, steer you to the “right” projects, and help guide your career. They can also shield you from some of the crap that flows downhill.

That doesn’t mean you can’t look to peers to be allies. It’s just that allies with power are even more helpful.

My new boss did not initially realize that her boss was one of my biggest supporters. He had even encouraged me to consider applying for the open position when my former boss left, but I didn’t feel I could take it on with a newborn at home.

I had already earned his respect multiple times over and I had a reputation for not shying away from problems. So her weak attempts to blame me for her fumbles weren’t persuasive at all.

I’m sure she is still kicking herself to this day because I went to him when I could no longer stand her incompetence and bad-mouthing. She did not realize I had powerful friends who wouldn’t let her force me out.

I asked to report directly to her boss instead of her and justified it with a detailed list of her transgressions, manipulations, and behavior choices. I told him I didn’t see a future for myself here if she remained. I trusted him to find a solution and he did. Thankfully, I’m still here but she is not.

Looking for allies is valuable universal advice for anyone but particularly essential for anyone who is a “non-traditional” employee entering a “traditional” workplace. It can be a lonely endeavor when you’re the only one that’s different (whether that’s due to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, or any other factor).

In the “good old days,” employees were expected to have a rigid separation between their personal and professional lives. You don’t put up photos of your same-sex partner in your office. You might make someone uncomfortable. You don’t talk about your kids. You might make someone question your commitment to the job.

Screw the old rules. It’s 2021. We are living with a global pandemic and everyone is stressed and anxious when it comes to life. We’re questioning why we have to give up so much to “succeed” at the office. We are tired of having to tiptoe around other colleagues.

Workplaces need to adapt to this “new normal” in myriad ways. Let’s force the powers that be to think about how to redefine office culture to be less focused on competition and posturing, too.

Otherwise, many of us may choose to remain working at home or move on to other workplaces. Life is too short to put up with that kind of work environment anymore, even if we do have a squad watching our back.

8X Top Writer. Proud grad of CA public schools. Committed to justice & leadership development. Wife & mom of 2 girls & 2 big dogs. Love to eat almost everything

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