Using Your Privilege At Work

A few years ago I had emergency knee surgery and was shocked and annoyed by how hard it was getting around on crutches.

Before my injury I never thought about how much easier it is to find a staircase in some buildings than the elevator. I did not pay attention to how high street curbs were until they became a physical barrier for me.

Before my knee injury, I walked around like the majority of people in our community. I didn’t think about what was and was not handicap accessible. I didn’t have to. Buildings and streets and transportation systems were made for people with physical characteristics similar to mine.

I had the privilege of being able bodied.

Privilege: Power and advantages benefiting a group not based on individual merit, rather on systemic or organizational favor.

Like most people with some type of privilege (… and that is most people), I rarely thought about my advantages as an able-bodied person. I would not have considered myself “privileged,” until my leg was injured and I (temporarily) no longer held that privilege.

U.S. workplaces often have policies, practices or physical spaces that benefit people with privileges based on:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ability/disability
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Education level
  • Income status
  • Physical/mental health
  • Sexual orientation
  • Language
  • Religion
  • Body size

Depending on where you work, you might have privilege(s) that your coworkers do not. Pay attention to how you might use your privilege to make the workplace better for everyone.

For example, do you drive your car to work while other employees take the bus? You have the privilege of having more control over when you arrive to work or need to leave. If a bus-riding employee asked for more flexibility in the work schedule, they might be seen as complaining. If you asked for more flexibility, supervisors might think differently about your suggestion.

Watch the “What is Privilege” video above, then take this short quiz to find out how privileged you are.

Next, think of ways you might use your privilege in big or small ways to improve the cultural competency of your workplace.

How to Use Privilege for Good At Work
  1. Listen to your colleagues from other groups. Believe them when they tell you how they are experiencing the workplace differently than you.
  2. Do not take action unless asked to. You are not expected or wanted to “fix” every situation. In fact, your actions might make matters worse for your coworkers. Ask how you can help and don’t do anything unless directed to do so.
  3. Know when to speak up. Sometimes a good idea sounds different coming from someone with privilege. Talk with your coworkers to decide if you might be a spokesperson for an idea or the right person to move a project forward. Be clear to give credit to everyone working on the project with you.
  4. Admit when you make a mistake. Becoming culturally competent is hard work. Everyone says or does the wrong thing from time to time. Be humble and acknowledge that you are learning. Be respectful of everyone and their different viewpoints. Apologize if necessary and find out how you can learn from the situation.
  5. Spread the word. As a person with privilege, you can talk with others in your group to discuss what you are learning and how they might build their own cultural competency. The more people at work understand and respect people from different backgrounds, the better to workplace will be for everyone, including supervisors and customers.


 Originally published January 2019