To do your job well and grow the way you’re meant to, you need access to the right resources. We’re all striving to hit that sweet spot of fulfilling the duties in our job descriptions while growing towards our desired future – and in many cases, it falls to the employee to advocate for that growth.
Self-advocacy is a recurring theme in conversations about DEI, employee engagement, and career growth, but it’s hard to know where to start. And it’s especially crucial now, for an anxious workforce in a difficult economic climate.
As part of an internal fireside chat series, Atlassian’s former head of DEI, Shelley Williamson, talked with Nadia Ramadan Jones, an NYC-based attorney and talent and cultural strategist, about how employees can take ownership of their contributions, best practices for self-advocacy, and tips on documenting career growth and goals.
Self-advocacy at work: what it is and isn’t
Our focus here is on individuals advocating for their own needs on a micro scale, as opposed to pursuing systemic change at the macro level. Both, of course, are extremely important levers affecting workplace well-being and equity at every level of a business – it’s not an “either-or” dichotomy. “It’s a both-and,” says Nadia. “I can’t really quantify how much systemic change versus individual action will change the equation, but it’s important to always have our hands on the reins of our career trajectories.”
Remember that harassment, bullying, and retaliation at work, whether individual or systemic, are not personal challenges to overcome – they’re abusive – and sometimes illegal – behaviors. If you’re experiencing this kind of mistreatment, document as much of it as you can, and seek help.
If you feel comfortable going to your HR, People, or Employee Relations team, that can be a good place to start, or visit EEOC.gov (US) Fairwork.gov (AUS), or the ILO (global) to learn more and access resources.
So what, specifically, falls within that micro-level scope of self-advocacy at work? At its most basic level, self-advocacy begins with “What do I want, and what does that look like?” What are your career goals, development goals? How do you see yourself growing and thriving within your organization and on your career path, and what do you need to get there? Is it more training, or learning and development opportunities? Better means of collaborating? Access to clients? A specific software program?
Self-advocacy at work is about gaining access to opportunities and resources that serve you and the future you want, and surfacing your contributions (especially those that might otherwise fly under the radar) to your team and your company. Put another way, it’s mindful and deliberate participation in your own future.
Self-advocacy is a privilege
For many full-time tech or corporate employees, companies provide things like learning and development benefits, defined processes for promotion, and at least some basic resources to help them grow. And in many cases, high compensation or incentives like stock and bonuses mean that many people can afford to quit or easily find another role if the opportunities aren’t there. But, Shelley says, “this is more difficult for folks from historically excluded and underrepresented groups…it’s still the institution’s job to improve the system so people are able to self-advocate. Those power dynamics are a very real part of people’s experience.”
Nadia adds, “It’s a privilege to be able to say, ‘here are the things I need to be successful in my job, here are the things I want you to be able to see about how well I’m thriving,’ and to not feel like you’re going to face barriers to representing yourself in that way.”
Your company benefits, too
Helping your organization understand what you’re struggling with and what you need to succeed benefits everyone involved. Shelley shares, “From my perspective, having lead DEI efforts at multiple organizations, being able to understand, or help the organization understand, what challenges are happening is not an ‘aha’ or ‘gotcha’ – it’s an opportunity to improve.”
Nadia adds, “Every organization wants their people to thrive and excel….not even necessarily from a morality standpoint. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s good for the bottom line.” understanding the needs of their workforce helps companies with capacity planning and budgeting, and keeping track of everything you’ve contributed to your role is incredibly valuable when you switch roles or leave the company.
How to advocate for yourself at work
Often when we think about self-advocacy, we focus on mitigating the bad – resolving a conflict, relieving disparities in resource distribution, or solving for our personal weaknesses. But it’s equally as important, and arguably even more challenging, to advocate for yourself when things are going well. “It’s the same inquiry, from my perspective, whether you’re running on tailwinds or running into headwinds,” says Nadia. “Self-advocacy needs to happen in the best of times and the worst of times.”
Here are four things to keep in mind as you build that self-advocacy muscle.
Get in the right mindset
Some of us tend to see acknowledging our own contributions as arrogance, but it’s all in the framing. Every single person at your company is doing work nobody knows about, and surfacing your own work – especially those unsung, under-the-radar inputs – is a way to help your team, leaders, and company overall understand how much goes into the job you do. Also, it’s okay to feel good, feel proud, and celebrate your contributions!
Identify your own personal “good, better, and best”
When you’re thinking about what you want out of your job, try to envision your future on a scale from “good” to “better” to “best.” “That framing,” Nadia explains, “forces you to start a point that you’re willing to accept.” The goal of this exercise is to set your workplace quality-of-life bar at a point you’re happy with, rather than one you’ll merely tolerate. And if you can advocate your way to “better” or “best”? That’s the dream.
Rely on your network
Nadia recommends “seeking input from people you trust” – they’ll give you a gut check and help separate the signal from the noise, mentally speaking. “There’s an emotionality to this,” she adds. “Whether you’re on cloud nine or running on fumes, relying on people you trust and seeing insights other than your own helps balance it out.”
Don’t underestimate the value of documentation
Acknowledging that it “might be the lawyer in me talking,” Nadia emphasizes, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” In systematizing your self-advocacy efforts, “whether you’re motivated by the carrot or the stick, it’s important to keep a record of that constructive or affirming feedback.” In this regard, digital communication is a huge gift. Got a great piece of constructive feedback? Shoot yourself a quick email. Give someone career advice over coffee? Copy-paste their thank-you note to your documentation. You’ll be amazed at the volume of meaningful contributions and growth opportunities you end up with when you’re disciplined about maintaining objective, in-the-moment records of everything that happens in your professional orbit.
Keep track of it all in a “hype doc”
A casual self-advocate might keep these records in an email folder, note-taking app, or analog notebook – and we’re all for it, if that’s what works for you. But our brilliant friends at Block (formerly Square) leveled up their self-advocacy documentation game in the form of a hype doc, a structured, purposeful way of organizing this kind of information. Block alum Aashni Shah has even launched her own company, HypeDocs, to help employers and their employees build transparency and increase worker retention.
Our Self-Advocacy Record Trello template is a good place to start – feel free to make it your own!
Regardless of how you choose to organize your awesomeness, make sure it’s easy to update on the fly. If your company has formal growth profiles or similar career-track guidelines, consider structuring your self-advocacy record around that framework.
Here are the elements you might consider keeping track of in your record:
- Feedback – good and bad: Keep track of any and all feedback that demonstrates your strengths and singles out opportunities for growth
- Projects: List concrete deliverables executed in the course of your work – these are the “big rocks” that might show up on your resume.
- Leadership: Make note of people you manage or delegate work to; mentor/mentee relationships; major changes you’ve initiated; and feedback you’ve given.
- Personal development: Document trainings, workshops, and certifications; skills you’ve gained in the course of your work; public speaking engagements; and even those humbling moments where you made a misstep and learned a lesson.
- Written work: Internal or external blogs you’ve authored; digital or print publications; even your self-published romance novel should go in your record.
- “Invisible” work: This might be input to important discussions and major decisions, informal contributions to other people’s work, or notable cross-functional collaborative efforts.
- Service to your org: Think time spent on recruiting, interviewing, and hiring; contributions to policy (such as inclusivity efforts); committees you’ve served on; and company events you’ve planned or participated in.
Don’t keep it to yourself
Share your self-advocacy record with your manager, your mentor, your networking group, and your mom. Get a group of colleagues together to share
You know your value better than anyone else can – don’t keep it to yourself.