Although it most frequently impacts people of color, and Black people in particular, an invisible tax can be “paid” based on any race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or intersection of those identities that deviates from the white, cishet norm.
Although the term was first coined by former US Education Secretary John King Jr. to describe the additional strain that school systems place on African American teachers, the phrase has since expanded to include the disproportionate emotional and mental weight carried by marginalized members of any workforce. Unsurprisingly, the toll exacted by the invisible tax often leads to employee burnout.
During a NationSwell Council hybrid workshop moderated by Jaylan Fisher (co-founder, Black In HR Indy), Dr. Warren Dukes (vice president of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, United Way of Central Indiana), Angel Henry (author and founder of AngelSpeaking), Amber Fields (chief culture officer, TrueU), and Rico Francis (Pacers Foundation Social Impact Director), and hosted by TJ Wright (principal & chief executive officer of Whelhaus Co.), participants reflected on the ways the invisible tax might show up in their own workplaces — and how to better identify implicit, biased behaviors in themselves and others.
Here are some key takeaways from the event:
Employers need to recognize — and pay — employees for the time they spend working to improve a company’s DEI metrics
Although companies are getting savvier when it comes to identifying the hallmarks of an invisible tax, including by establishing identity-based affinity groups for employees, leaders are too often oblivious to the extra work these groups can create for their members. Doing support work, putting together agendas, and running the show in general are all forms of labor, and team members who go the extra mile to build and strengthen coalitions should be compensated for their time accordingly.
Know your limits and establish firm boundaries
Knowing when to walk away — and when a company is not supporting your experience in the workplace — can be a vital skill when dealing with an invisible tax. Having your boundaries frequently crossed or challenged, whether it’s through insensitive comments, unfair expectations, or unacknowledged work, is unacceptable, and sometimes the best thing to do is to leave a dangerous or toxic environment.
Normalizing mental health discussions and education in the workplace is a critical step
Having brave and vulnerable conversations is key to creating psychological safety in the workplace and establishing greater understanding of how identity impacts how people show up to do their jobs. By normalizing frank conversations around mental health, employers can in turn create a safe and inclusive workspace where team members trust that their experiences and struggles will be seen and understood.
Call out the invisible tax when you spot it
Sometimes the best strategy for dealing with unfair treatment is to initiate tough and frank conversations about where and how an invisible tax is showing up. Such conversations are also a great opportunity for white, cisgender and heteronormative colleagues to step up and advocate for their colleagues, who shouldn’t be expected to bear the burden of always blowing the whistle on bad policies or behaviors.
If your company isn’t attracting diverse talent organically, there might be good reason to be suspicious
The absence of diverse applicants in a company’s hiring pipeline is often a good sign that the company in question isn’t doing enough to attract or retain diverse talent. Common sins of companies struggling to champion inclusivity are the absence of diverse representation in leadership; soliciting thought partnership without reward, recognition or follow through; and using language that contradicts the actual policies in place (i.e., saying “we support moms” while simultaneously offering inadequate parental leave).
Normalize not expecting people of color to “react” to violent news cycles that white team members might have the privilege to ignore
Not only should marginalized employees not be asked to serve as “spokespersons” on their respective cultures, but they also shouldn’t be expected to react to violent or traumatizing news cycles involving members of the group(s) they identify with. Asking coworkers of color “how they’re doing” during a tough news cycle might seem well-intentioned, but the implication is that the emotional burden is theirs to bear — yet another form of emotional labor that non-minority employees are exempt from.
The NationSwell Council community brings together a diverse, curated community of bold individuals and organizations leading the way in social, economic, and environmental problem-solving. Learn more about the Council here.