The stolen spotlight. We’ve all seen it. Just recently, I met with a team where the most junior member in the group, a woman, had an exciting new idea she wanted to share. She was proposing a fresh marketing strategy, partnering with micro-influencers to boost a new product launch. She carefully mustered up the courage to pitch her idea, but right when she got to the punchline, a more senior male talked over her. He said, “Oh yeah! That reminds me….” And then launched into a different, and frankly, pretty stale idea. Her point got derailed, the moment was gone, and people forgot what she was even talking about.
Moments like this happen all the time at work. But here’s the thing: being an advocate for overlooked coworkers is a powerful way to shift the momentum – to make sure everyone feels welcome, included, and valued. A person may be overlooked at work for many reasons. Perhaps they are new to the company and they feel a little shy or are naturally introverted and have a hard time speaking up in meetings. Or, maybe your other coworkers have too much unconscious bias in their morning coffee… every morning.
Whatever the case may be, we all need give each other the chance to share great ideas. Drawing some positive attention to your more reserved or otherwise overlooked coworkers allows them to use their unique experiences and knowledge to propel your organization further. This also helps establish trust and respect – two important factors in any relationship.
In other words, everyone wins.
Here are three ways you can advocate for your overlooked coworkers, drawing on the insightful work of Dr. Joan Williams, a distinguished professor of law at UC Hastings College of Law:
1. Give a strong introduction
Make an effort to understand your overlooked coworker’s professional history, so you can highlight the main points when introducing them to someone new. Let’s face it: meeting new people can be overwhelming – especially if they’re a VIP. It can make the best among us nervous and self-conscious and can make your mind go completely blank!
You can remove a ton of pressure from your coworker’s shoulders by starting the conversation with them. Not only does this ensure that you mention what makes them great, but it gives them a few extra seconds to collect their thoughts before speaking.
Here’s an example: “Janine has five years of event planning experience, and I’m excited to have her on this project!”
2. Shield them from critics
Sometimes, people think they have all the information or ideas they need, so they shut others out and make a decision. They don’t realize that the next idea might be the best one they’ve heard yet, even if it is a little unconventional.
There are many methods for achieving the same goal. Your coworker may be overlooked because they “do things a little differently,” and that intimidates or confuses other people on your team. Or maybe they’re young or new to the company, which makes long-term employees assume they don’t have the knowledge or experience to speak on the topic at hand.
Speak up if you know that your overlooked coworker has proved their value in a similar situation, or they have the skills necessary to succeed in a new endeavor.
Here’s an example: “Let’s hear this idea out. I know Sam has run several projects just like this.”
If you aren’t aware of their past successes, make it a point to check in with them before, during, and after a meeting. Before, ask about their previous experiences with the topic and if they have any ideas. During, ask them directly if they have any thoughts to add. After, ask them how they felt the meeting went and if there was anything they forgot to mention.
If they did forget something, tell them you’ll relay the message and give proper credit.
3. Nominate them for great assignments
Don’t wait for assignments to get handed out if you know who would be perfect for the job! This is another reason getting to know your overlooked coworkers is crucial. With a brief understanding of their work history, you can help connect them to assignments that will communicate their value and you’ll also be confident that the project is in the right hands.
Here’s an example: “Erin managed a similar portfolio last spring, and she’d be great at running point with the client.”
Typically, white men get assignments that will enhance their career more often than women do – even if the woman is just as or more qualified. Women tend to either believe they are underqualified or accept assignments without negotiation, often because “insistent” women are historically viewed as demanding.
It’s time to take some personal ownership.
Marginalized people, including women, minorities and LGBTQIA people, are overlooked in the workplace so often that we’ve practically stopped noticing the pattern. That’s all the more reason that unconscious or inherent bias in the workplace is still a major issue. It hurts feelings, stalls progress, and lends to a toxic workplace.
So, let’s stop sleepwalking. To really wake up to these biases - to give everyone a truly equal opportunity –means starting with your own actions. We must raise our overlooked co-workers up, so they’re noticed when it matters most.
Selena Rezvani is a women’s leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask – And Stand Up – For What They Want." She’s currently writing her third book called “Quick Confidence,” due out Spring 2023. Follow her on TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn.