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You call it nepotism, I call it bias. Here’s how to deal.

I’m familiar with going above and beyond at work: taking on extra assignments; picking up the slack for sick co-workers; even doing some of the “office housework” critical to the smooth operation of any office. I liked to help, I wanted to help, and I assumed my dedication would be recognized.

It’s only logical, right?

But, instead of recognition, accolades, or even an appreciative nod in a performance review, I routinely received the sting of rejection throughout my corporate career by being overlooked for career advancement.

Instead, I watched my coworkers get promoted again and again because they happened to be “in” with the boss.

It was demoralizing and unfair. We know women of color experience bias in the workplace and are disproportionately assigned this “office housework.”

So it was the first thing that came to mind when I was asked to answer a question from a Girlboss reader on how to navigate nepotism at the office. This reader shared how they had been “doing it all” but still unable to advance because of nepotism.

My personal experience throughout my professional career, and the extensive research I conducted for my book Inclusion on Purpose, confirms that nepotism is a serious DEI concern – especially for women of color.

Why does nepotism disproportionately (and harmfully) impact women of color?

Two words: affinity bias. That’s the predilection human beings have to gravitate toward people who look like us.

So it follows that if corporate America is predominantly white and male-dominated (which it is), and people gravitate towards others like them… then corporate leadership is likely to hire and promote more white men – to the tune of 70% more than women of color promoted to leadership, according to McKinsey research.

This is not about finger-pointing, though. Affinity bias is natural and something we’re hardwired for. So, we can lay down the defensiveness.

And: we have the responsibility as leaders to become aware of our affinity bias so we can act intentionally to cultivate inclusion. If we don’t, we will act on our biases. That’s not our fault, but it is a fact.

But what can you do when your boss has not ascended to this level of intentional inclusion?

Three tips to deal with workplace nepotism (or bias)

  1. Talk to your manager. I know this is not always easy and requires you to feel a certain level of safety with your boss. But I highly suggest this as a starting point. Plan what you’re going to say in advance and stick to the facts. For example, try highlighting all of your achievements that you believe made you the better candidate for the promotion that you were passed over for. You can then ask your boss to explain what criteria were used to promote your colleague instead of you.

  2. Stop doing it all. Women of color are often expected to do the “office housework” – work that is outside of their job description but still necessary for the office to function optimally. For example, if you’re a lawyer trying to make partner at your firm yet you seem to get saddled with making sure office supplies are well stocked, then it may be time to actively turn down the “office housework”. Check out 5 ways women of color can say “nope” to office housework for ideas!

  3. Leave! Sometimes we forget that this is an option when we’re used to working in a culture of nepotism (and other biases). You deserve to work somewhere where you feel welcomed, valued, and appreciated! For example, if you have tried my first two tips to no avail, then it may be time to re-evaluate what you need and what you are not willing to tolerate from a future employer. Keep that information top of mind as you go on interviews and ask questions to determine if the employer would be a good fit.

We’re a ways away from fully eliminating the bias that blocks women of color from advancing in their careers. But if we all make it our business to call it out, and we all make inclusion and equal opportunity for advancement non-negotiables, it will send the message to leaders that they must cultivate an inclusive workplace or risk losing valuable talent.

I’d love to hear about how you have dealt with nepotism, or if you’ve ever caught yourself in your own affinity bias. Please share your experience!

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