You never leave the office before 8pm. Your idea almost always gets presented to the client. A year goes by--you get a nominal raise, if any. You ask the creative director what you need to do to get a promotion. "You're doing fine. Just keep on doing what you're doing." You think you're indispensable but you still feel like an outsider. Another year drifts by and it's clear you are not the go-to person in the office. It's the same people who seem to get special attention over and over. Why does the office sometimes seem like a high school popularity contest?
More importantly, why do talented people get overlooked? Isn't it supposed to be all about the work?
There are lots of influential factors at work in the office--some obvious, some hidden.
But one of the most universally prevalent one is the "Let's Grab a Beer" phenomenon.
It's a very simple and seemingly innocent social phenomenon that goes like this: When the CD experiences an important success, he wants to celebrate. He calls a meeting, announces it to the agency and doles out tons of praise to the team. He may even distribute bonuses. But it doesn't end there. After work, he invites a select few to get drinks at the local bar or go see a hockey game. Naturally, he chooses those most like him to celebrate. Why? Because drinking with male co-workers does not invite suspicion of sexual harassment. Drinking with men he feels comfortable with also means he can swear, let loose, relax a little, hang up the boss hat and recapture his youth for an hour or two with the employees that are most like him.
It doesn't take long for word to spread and for the line of demarcation to be clear--for the select few to be suspected of receiving higher bonuses, earlier promotions and being fast-tracked. For the women in the organization, or for those that don't mirror the boss, it feels like a hopeless situation. They leave. The boss doesn't get it and doesn't see how he is sabotaging his company's success.
It's natural to gravitate towards those like us. It's human to categorize people by their appearance. It's an ancient part of community building and ensuring safety. Over the last several decades, we have made great strides in seeing people as human rather than white, black, male or female. Yet the problem persists.
How does a true leader guard against this phenomenon? Awareness is key. Encouraging a mix of people and management levels at social events is key. You'd be amazed at what you learn when you invite the receptionist. Avoid the ego's desire to mirror oneself and look at all of your employees as interesting and multi-faceted, talented people that you can learn from and have lots in common with. After all, they are all on your bus. Train yourself to routinely get out of your comfort zone and look forward to the surprises that come with getting to know people who are different from you. You will notice a different kind of energy begin to take over.
But what do you do if you are the overlooked employee? How can you remain engaged and part of the team in a way that feels natural? This is extremely tough. But I've seen successful strategies work.
In one agency, we hired a guy who negotiated some of his paid time to be set aside to launch an agency-wide film festival every year. It was a win-win because the agency was keen to build community through an alternative creative pursuit. He was a senior creative director, and he his approach was brilliant. He intentionally became a beacon for younger, diverse talent, ensuring his own leadership built around a personal creative passion. In so doing, he removed the social pressure to go get a beer or attend a sporting event, which just wasn't his thing.
Another less senior employee found himself always working until the wee hours while everyone else went out socializing. Soon, his reliability and work ethic helped him make a name for himself to the point where everybody wanted him on their team and saw him as the hero. Eventually, he negotiated extra compensation for his willingness to work the late shift.
Another brand new, young female creative team was assigned the task of making the agency's holiday party invite. They decided to make a name for themselves by deliberately not making a card or digital video as was common at the time. Instead, they turned the lobby into the invite and shot old-timey sepia photos of western scenes. They got all kinds of props like cowboy hats and made horses and saloon doors out of painted cardboard. They designed a set instead of a card and invited their co-workers to come stage pictures of themselves to get them excited about the western-themed party. Everybody wanted to know who had done such a cool, bold thing. They were instant celebrities.
It's not easy, but there are ways to do it--in your own way, using your own strengths. It's also key to find the right fit from the beginning. Smaller, older companies can be trickier. Younger, urban companies tend to be naturally diverse. Larger corporations tend to have formal management training programs set up to specifically encourage and reward diversity. Do your homework, know your worth and be mindful of your choices. And if you decline a job offer based on the lack of diversity or what is perceived as fit for diverse employees, give the HR manager this valuable feedback. They are in the position to make changes to the organization.