This is the second piece in a four-part series exploring how race and identity affect feelings of belonging at work, and how employers can respond and support their diverse workforce. This series is based on qualitative research from The America's Promise Alliance's YES Project which demonstrates that young employees feel that their identities play an important role in how they enter into, navigate, and advance within the world of work. Below, YES Project intern Deshaun Rice reflects on his experiences as a high-performing employee in low-wage jobs with little respect. Check out part one in the Race, Identity, and Belonging series here.
I have never felt like a person at any job.
I have worked numerous jobs for numerous employers—from large corporations to small, family-owned businesses—and I can tell you that in these roles I have never really felt seen. Maybe because I am a Black man, or because I don’t have my degree yet, or simply because I am “young” and “inexperienced.” I don’t know the exact reason, but I do know that classism is deeply ingrained in American systems and structures—including the workplace. My journey through the world of work has certainly been affected by it.
As I reflect on my past jobs—as a delivery driver, a janitor, a cook in the fast-food industry, an intern in an office environment—I can see how at any moment I could have been trapped with the idea that there is no “up” from here, nobody to help me move forward, and that I am not good enough to succeed.
In numerous jobs, I’ve had little to no opportunity for advancement for reasons that have nothing to do with my performance. In one particular role, I was in a low-paying, low-power position, but leaders within the organization began to realize that I was smart, had bright ideas, and a strong motivation to advance within the company. However, that advancement would never be an option for me or my coworkers like me, due to the fact that we did not have college degrees. No matter how well we performed, the amount of positive feedback we received, or the number of great ideas we had, we would always be stuck at the bottom.
In addition to facing barriers to my professional growth, I’ve also faced the mental and emotional barriers that come with being looked down upon, undervalued, and treated as less-than. I previously worked at a moving company where I consistently went above and beyond to show my commitment. I was quickly recognized as one of the best movers in the company, but during one particular move I severely injured my back lifting a heavy piece, and my doctor recommended I avoid heavy lifting moving forward. I will never forget my employer’s response when I informed him: “Well, we can’t do anything else with you, can we?” They never entertained the idea that I might be valuable to the company in another role or context. I was a mover—expendable—and once injured, useless. I wanted so much to give more to the company, and hoped that I’d have the chance given how much dedication I had shown. But for whatever reason—my education level, my perceived status, the color of my skin—that was an option that never really existed.
Yes, I want fair pay. Yes, I want opportunities to advance. But at a very basic level, I just want to be seen as a person and treated like I matter. Throughout all of these experiences, a basic extension of kindness or a simple acknowledgement of my humanity would have gone so far in helping me feel like I belonged. Not once did anyone offer me a piece of encouragement, helpful advice, or point me in the direction to pursue a growth opportunity. Did they think I wasn’t worth it? Do I have to look a certain way, dress a certain way, or have a certain title to be treated like a person?
I believe that most employers want their employees to feel like they belong. Here are some efforts that would have made a big difference for me:
Invest in the professional growth of all employees. Don’t assume the lowest-paid employees are complacent. Sometimes it’s not complacency, but a lack of belonging or fear of speaking up that makes it appear as though we don't have more to give. In all of my work experiences, the thing I wanted most was for someone to help me continue to grow and learn so I could do and attain more, and I know I’m not alone. Whether it’s a professional development opportunity to learn a new skill, or an outside consultant coming in to provide training on resume building or interview techniques—it means a lot to know that an employer is invested in your growth.
Don’t view a college degree as the biggest—or only—indicator of competence. A college degree is one way to signal someone’s skills and abilities. But it also is primarily available to those with some degree of financial privilege. Not everyone’s lives lend themselves to that particular credential, but so many of us without degrees are equally capable of contributing, if given the chance.
Provide regular wellbeing check-ins. Whether it’s every four weeks or every four months, check in with employees regularly to see how they are doing. Not as a form of oversight, but as a means of encouraging their wellbeing and belonging. Particularly those with the lowest pay and the least power—we have goals, we have needs, and our wellbeing matters, too. A “how are you doing?” or a “where do you see yourself within this company?” goes a long way.
There is more to "belonging” than matching uniforms or matching email signatures. Belonging means seeing me, knowing me, and valuing me as a person. I am not disposable. I am irreplaceable, and I add value to this world. I shouldn’t need to come in wearing a suit and tie for that to be acknowledged.