Let’s look at the impact of ‘privilege’ at work

Ishreen Bradley

Here, Ishreen Bradley, founder of Belonging Pioneers, explores the ways in which privilege might show up in the workplace:

Over the last few months our team at Belonging Pioneers have been exploring the impact of privilege at work – looking beyond the more obvious aspects of unconscious bias within equity, diversity and inclusion.   We are currently conducting a survey among leaders and professionals across many organisations that will look at how privilege has impacted them, their leadership style and their teams.  This survey, which we are calling ‘The Privilege Conundrum’  has already provided us with many insights – some of which will be shared later in this blog. 

Before sharing these findings, let’s take a little look at how we have interpreted privilege. The standard definition is as follows: Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”

There is another well-illustrated definition from Wayne Reid, Activist and Member of the Professional Association for Social Work and Social Workers: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”

It is important to be reminded of these definitions as we explore the early findings.  As we build our body of knowledge a few important trends are emerging. As the following statistics show, privilege has a very real impact on each of us:  

  • 90% of respondents think that privilege has a negative impact in their workplace with over 50% of these stating Privilege has significantly negative impact. 
  • 58% have both had privilege used against them, AND used privilege themselves.
  • When using privilege against others, people did not intend this to happen. This was unconscious or subconsciously done…. But it happened so can it be fixed or prevented?
  • Use of privilege has left the vast majority feeling undervalued, demotivated and excluded. It has a significant impact on their commitment and productivity.

Our findings so far have also identified that privilege is not used all the time, but it is used enough to have a debilitating impact on productivity, resilience, mental health and wellbeing in general.  

Another interesting finding is the unconscious bias that exists around privilege because over 76% of respondents agreed that they are unable to change the circumstances they were born into and, therefore, accept that this affects their perspective. This provides us with even greater insight when we consider that over 60% of survey participants are at board/director and senior management levels.   

Surely then this would suggest that their decisions may not necessarily be through the same lens as those who are affected by such decisions. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that 70% of organisations feel they need to improve the way in which privilege impacts their business.

It is quite clear more work needs to be done to understand the aspect of privilege in the workplace. This is reflected in our findings that 58% of the organisations surveyed do not have policies for privilege.  It is remiss that the majority of organisations recognise the need to invest more into the impact of privilege yet are failing to do so.   Those that do and are trailblazing in this area are seeing benefits such as:

o   Employees feeling safe and valued

o   Improvement of talent acquisition

o   Increased productivity

o   Improved brand reputation and values 

In this article, we have shared with you our early, indicative findings. Given the current challenges organisations are facing with regard to recruiting and retaining talent, we believe it is essential for us to build this body of knowledge around the impact of privilege at work and explore how the barriers presented by conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious privilege can be mitigated.

Footnote: If you would like to contribute to this growing body of knowledge, please do head over to: http://bit.ly/PrivilegeResearch and participate in our survey.  Your responses will prepare the way for greater consciousness and cultural awareness of privilege and the creation of fairer, safer and more inclusive workplaces.  Everyone who completes the survey will have the opportunity to win one of the 100 places at our “Balancing The Scales” event on 20th February 2023, where we will be sharing our detailed findings for the first time.