Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Rebecca Erickson as a professor of psychology. She is a professor of sociology.

A lot of responsibility falls to workers from minority groups.

Executive Brief

  • In many workplaces, minority workers are asked (or expected) to do the work that makes a company more inclusive.
  • But experts say the work of diversity and inclusion is a shared responsibility, to which everyone in the office can contribute.
  • Supervisors need to listen and learn, making sure this work doesn't only fall to certain workers.

They’re often the ones asked to educate their colleagues on racism, sexism, ableism and all the other -isms. They’re also the ones who are typically tasked with recruiting more diverse candidates. They’re usually the ones tapped to speak up in uncomfortable discussions about company culture.

In short, they’re the ones doing the hard work of making a workplace more diverse, inclusive and welcoming to everyone.

“Especially if you’re a woman of color or visibly queer, you will be burdened or assigned or expected to take on that diversity work,” says Veronica Caridad Cruz Rabelo, assistant professor of management at San Francisco State University.

This “double shift” is common in many workplaces. White, cisgender or straight colleagues may be fearful of accidentally saying the wrong thing. So instead, they task employees of different races, backgrounds or sexual orientations with the “diversity work” that otherwise wouldn’t get done.

The emotional toll

In bearing the brunt of this “diversity work,” people find they are coping with both the tangible tasks — like recruiting more minority employees to the company, or shutting down a colleague’s tone-deaf comments — as well as the emotional side effects that come later.

“I don’t think people realize how much emotional time it takes and how much physical time it takes,” says Jennifer Gómez, associate professor at Wayne State University. “I believe that oftentimes it’s seen as ‘It’s not my issue. I’m a white person. Racism isn’t my issue. It’s not about me. It’s about those people over there.’ and really, diversity and equity is everyone’s responsibility.”

Most damning of all, Gómez says, this work is usually invisible. Meeting with other employees of color, for example, isn’t something that is typically recognized in employee evaluations, and speaking up against sexism in a meeting isn’t often part of a promotion track.

People from the majority group may not even recognize it as “labor” that detracts from time that could be spent on other work responsibilities.

“I’m not going to be promoted for doing this emotional labor,” Gómez says. “There just isn’t enough time in the day or enough time in my brain to do all these things. I get tired.”

Where it starts — and stops

Those from the majority group may think they’re doing the right thing by turning the work over to people of color, LGBT employees and other workers who belong to a minority group.

They don’t want to take up space in the room — but in avoiding the conversation altogether, they’re also not taking the time to be an ally.

‘“Well-meaning’ whites want to address these issues, and i think the one thing where this needs to start is really listening,” says Rebecca Erickson, sociology professor at the University of Akron. “This requires a safe space.”

Their intentions may be good, but in neglecting to share their responsibility, they’re only perpetuating the problem.

Erickson suggests organizations keep the power differential in mind: an employee may feel uncomfortable explaining to their manager that the responsibility is being shared unfairly. First of all, supervisors need to listen and learn without, for example, relying on people of color to educate them on racism in the workplace.

Managers should bring in people from human resources or even outside firms, suggests Erickson. This way, the manager gets a chance to learn alongside everyone else, and the other employes aren’t distracted from their work with requests to do the heavy lifting.

Rabelo says she likes and values a lot of the work that goes into promoting diversity and inclusion. But finding that balance between her actual responsibilities and these other responsibilities, both of which she thinks are important to the health of her organization — it takes work.

“It’s one of the most motivating aspects of my job,” she says. “A lot of the work I’m taking on is things I initiated. But by and large, people are forced to be in these positions and don’t want to be,” she says.