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August 16, 2023
Work Appropriate
My Industry is Failing: Tech Edition with Ifeoma Ozoma

In This Episode

Ifeoma Ozoma joins host Anne Helen Petersen for a much-requested episode about the trials and tribulations workers face in the tech industry. From overwork to the nebulous “culture fit,” we answer listeners’ questions about when the start-up hustle is no longer worth it.

  • Read CNN’s profile of Ifeoma Ozoma and her work from December 2022
  • Need advice about a sticky situation at work? Head to www.workappropriate.com and tell us about it, or send an email to workappropriate@crooked.com
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TRANSCRIPT

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen, narrating: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen. And this is Work Appropriate. [music break] So we’ve done a bunch of these, my industry is broken episodes and each time I’m struck by how the fundamental breakage in the industry can really be traced to the industry’s origins. Like for nonprofits, it’s that the business model is predicated on a workforce of married women who don’t really need to get paid. And for tech, well, it’s the capitalism, of course, but it’s also the expectation of hockey stick growth, the VC funding model, the culture around the Wonder Boy founder, and the narrative that we’re not a bunch of workers building a company, we’re a bunch of weird misfits, building ideas and innovation. And who needs an H.R. department for that? Tech is not the only industry that uses the mythos that’s developed around it to discourage employees from thinking of themselves as workers with rights. But the way it does so with the promise of good benefits and stock options, and, I don’t know, unlimited seltzer is particularly pernicious. So to answer your tech workplace quandaries, I wanted someone who’s been in the trenches, but also sees the machinations of tech very clearly and now works to help others do so as well. She’s a legend in the tech world in a very different sort of way than, say, Mark Zuckerberg. And she is actively working to change it, or at the very least, to provide workers with more protections within it. And we are so fortunate to have her on the show today. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: My name is Ifeoma Ozoma. I have spent my entire career in tech. I even before graduating from college, I started with two internships at Google on the public policy team and then worked there straight out of college and then moved to Facebook and then moved to Pinterest. And now I’m working on tech issues and issues that affect tech workers from outside of the industry. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So this episode is all about tech as an industry, like its failures as an industry. And you have a famous story about this? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: [laugh] Famous or infamous, I guess. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes yes. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Uh. [laughing] So as I said, I my last job in tech was at Pinterest, where I was recruited to be the second person on their public policy team. When I was brought on I was told I would be an equal partner. I even have the same job title as the other person who was on the team. A few months in, a colleague let me know very kindly [laugh] an older colleague who had been at the company for a number of years that she thought there was something fishy going on because she was able to see levels and saw that this male colleague was several levels ahead of me, [laughter] even though we were doing the exact same work. Again when I was brought in um it was under the guise of the same title. His title was changed though, after I started. Yeah. And so I did what uh not I’ve never had rose colored glasses about the tech industry, um but I did what everyone’s told to do. I brought it up with the team, brought it up with my skip level, who is the um chief legal officer. The GC of the company. I brought it up with H.R., gave the company six months at that point to respond in anyway, and was rebuffed repeatedly. And so then I hired a lawyer and the rest is history. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: What you did is under this umbrella of whistleblowing. And I think, though, sometimes people don’t think of what you did in this situation as whistleblowing. They think of whistleblowing as like Edward Snowden. But whistleblowing is calling bullshit on what a company is trying to get past you in terms of exploitation in so many different ways. So can you kind of expand like how do you think of the term whistleblowing? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Part of thinking of whistleblowing in a more expanded fashion, I think is also understanding who a worker is and– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –where workers fit into the system. When I think about tech workers and the advocacy I’ve done since leaving Pinterest, speaking very publicly about it, anyone can read about it at any number of outlets uh in my own words as well and a number of them. When I think of tech workers, I think of everyone who upholds the industry. So not just the–

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –quote unquote “white collar workers” like I was whose in a quote unquote “professional role,” but all of the people who are in the kitchen staff, all of the people who are driving the shuttles to ensure that we’re able to get to the office, all of the people who make it possible so that the quote unquote, “white collar and professional workers” can do what they they do. And so for me, whistleblowing meant speaking about the conditions of the work that we’re doing and speaking to the unlawful conduct that was going on that not only affected me, but I heard from hundreds and thousands of tech workers after I spoke up uh who are in many different types of roles across the industry about how it affected them too. People– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –who were in positions of less privilege than I was. And I’m a Black woman. I, upper middle class, I guess you could say. And so I it’s not like I have all of the privileges of someone in the tech industry. And yet I knew from the beginning when I was speaking out that I had privileges that others didn’t, even others who look exactly like me, who have more experience than me in the industry. I’ve written about one of those privileges, at the time which was being childless. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Not having kids meant that speaking up didn’t cost me as much because my COBRA payment for it to keep my health insurance and continue seeing the therapist who had been life saving for me while I was in the role and after was only a thousand dollars a month, which I had to find, even though I had no income at the time. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: But it would have been two, three or $4,000 a month if I–

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –had dependents, if I had a spouse who was on my health insurance, and I probably would not have even hired an attorney if I–

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –had dependents. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And so part of the work that you do is to protect people legally if they do speak up. Can you say a little bit more about that? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yeah, The work that I’ve done since leaving the company uh is on a number of fronts. One was in creating the Tech Worker Handbook, which is an online resource free resource for anyone, honestly, in any industry. But it’s– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –geared towards tech workers. And again, when I say tech workers, I mean everyone from kitchen staff to the CTO of a company who is still a worker, because if you’re not the boss, you’re a worker. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Uh. If you don’t own the company, you are a worker. And so I want folks to remember that as well, that no matter how privileged you may feel, uh you have more in common and you should have more solidarity with the folks who are contract workers and who are um working hourly shifts around you who you may not even speak to every day. Um. So that research, the tech worker handbook focuses on legal avenues that people can pursue. Speaks to uh comms because that’s a big one if you are going to come forward. And I don’t um believe in martyrdom, I don’t encourage anyone to become a whistleblower because it’s not easy at all. But if you do, you should be aware of how to engage with reporters. Uh. You should understand that reporters aren’t your friend. You may become friendly with a reporter at some point, but their job is not to tell your story in the way that you want. It’s to tell it objectively. And so just understanding that is helpful. Uh. Keeping in mind security. If you work for a tech company or working for a surveillance organization. And so uh in most cases, you really do want to be careful about what you’re doing, especially if it’s on company devices. And then the other part of the work that I’ve done since leaving was in securing new legal protections in California and in Washington state. In California, the bill was the uh it was called the Silence No More Act. And what it does is it reformed the way that NDAs, nondisclosure agreements and non-disparagement agreements can be used when a worker is pushed out. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So I hope people will understand why I wanted you as the person giving advice on this episode, because as we were saying earlier, there are a lot of people that I could have asked to come on the show that would give kind of, I think, straight business advice here. But we wanted a little bit of a different perspective about, you know, what is and is not okay too just like as a broad starting point. And I think a way to segue into that is to think like as an industry, what is the major foundational brokenness of tech? I know this is a big question. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: [laugh] The it’s a big question, but I don’t think it’s too difficult because the tech industry is broken in the same way that our entire capitalist– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –society is broken. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laugh] Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: The the ills of tech are no different than the ills of big pharma and big oil. Um. And so in that way, it’s not so different. And actually one of the more depressing things that I’ve observed is hearing from friends who came from big oil, who came from large consulting companies, who came from finance places like Goldman. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Where their souls were broken down every single day uh they were in their jobs, that they actually had an easier time in those industries [laughter] because there wasn’t the fake B.S., honestly, [mic falls down] that you see in the tech industry, where um in the tech industry you’re sold this ideal of a place where everyone is equal, where the benefits are so great, they’re not actually that much better. Just being honest. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No, they’re not. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Um and and where and where people are treated like they’re all part of one big family, which is the biggest red flag on the planet to hear. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Um. But. But there is this pitch that’s made about the industry and even in specific companies like it was at Pinterest being better than others. So the new thing is, oh, well, we’re not Google, we’re not Facebook, even though the companies are doing the exact same thing. And it’s more insidious because the culture is not to speak about it. At least if you’re at a place like Goldman, you know what you signed up for. You know it’s– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –going to be hell. And everyone is sort of in it together, knowing that their lives are miserable every day. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laugh] No one at like big oil is like, oh, we’re a family, right? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. [laughter] Right. And the thing with big oil, too, and it being so similar to big tech is in the extraction. The extraction– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –is the business model. Uh. But in big tech, the pitch that’s made both internally and externally to consumers is that we’re making your lives better. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: We what we’re doing is good for the world. And so no matter what you’re experiencing here, you’re doing a good thing by existing in this company. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. And oil, it’s like, this is bad, but you need us. Like–

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. [laughter] Right. Which which some big company, big tech companies are now moving towards. I would say– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: That Google now more so than 15 years ago when the tagline was don’t be evil. And Google has since– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –dropped that uh is being more clear about, well, we’re in every single part of your life. So whether you hate us or not, [laugh] we’re still here. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Same with Amazon, I think, too. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yup. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like, I think that it’s so foundational now that people are like, yeah, you can hate us, but like, what would you do without us? I do think one thing for smaller companies that you run into a lot and certainly I ran into this at BuzzFeed, is this kind of like boy genius founder like we don’t have to have an H.R. department because we’re building the plane as we go, because we’re innovators. We’re entrepreneurs. We’re trying to get that big IPO. Like all of the different rhetoric around smaller startups is like, throw yourself into it and like, maybe things will come up. We’ll deal with that when it comes and leads to, I think, a lot of harassment, a lot of inequity, a lot of bullshit. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yes, [laughter] yes, yes to all of that. Uh. I mean, and all of the big companies that we know now started from that. And so–

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –one of the things that I think is most dangerous about being in an organization that small and that wants to be big because that’s the case you’re making to the VCs that are funding you. Is the case you’re making to anyone else who is investing in your company that you will be big at some point is what do you do if you don’t start with those fundamentals? If you don’t start with a team that believes in I don’t know, following the law? [laughing] Which [laugh] which is something that a lot of startups are not doing, following basic employment law in the states– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –and jurisdictions that they operate in. And so it it if it starts bad, it will continue poorly and you’ll just have a much larger company with the exact same issues that you had when it was 20 people. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Like, it’s like the foundation is set up that it’s going– 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: –to be dys– not just dysfunctional, but I think actually harmful, dangerous and especially for people who are not as well compensated or as high up in like the pyramid. Right. Like it trickles down into to affect all of the people who are contributing to that larger project, which that’s capitalism. But I think you can see it very vividly in tech. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yup. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Um. We could go so many different places with this, so we’re going to start with a question. This first one comes from Jenna, and our producer Melody is going to read it. 

 

Melody Rowell: I work in content marketing at a tech company. We recently held midyear performance reviews where no one on my team received a promotion or any compensation adjustment, despite very obviously beating goals, delivering above expectations, taking on new and challenging work, in my case, moving into a hybrid role on a new to me team. It tanked morale. Now we’re being asked to deliver tenfold on already inflated goals and double down on work by our VP and no one is into it. How do we start conversations about sustainability and finite resources from a position of limited power and influence at our company? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I think we can start with kind of like the basic setup of this question, which is part of what motivates people in tech. And this is, again, I think, underlining some of those comparisons that you were making earlier to finance and oil it’s like. Oh, well, if the growth expectations are ridiculous, it’s okay if we’re getting paid well. But if we’re not getting paid well, then we’re not going to we’re not going to stomach those growth expectations. Instead of like starting from the beginning, this was unsustainable. What do you think when you see this question? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: I feel so bad for whoever this is and for their team, because even the concept of the resources being finite is made up. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. [laughter]

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: You’ve been put in a situation that’s artificially unsustainable, artificially limited, and then they hold this carrot over your head that, Oh, you’ll get a bump after we do performance reviews. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And then yank that away from you and then add on two, three, four people’s jobs to your job title. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And you’re sitting around asking how to make things more sustainable at a place where they’ve told you we don’t respect you, we don’t appreciate you. We are going to work you until you drop dead or you choose to leave. And then we’ll just replace you with someone else who’s, quote unquote, “hungry.” So– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: We’re starting, unfortunately, from the wrong place. That said, we live in a capitalist hellhole. Everyone has to pay rent. People have uh kids and partners that they have to provide health insurance for. And so if you want to stay somewhere like this, I think you have to fundamentally and this is so difficult, especially in our culture, but you have to fundamentally reframe your understanding of your own power within the company. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: You are the reason the company is able to do what it does and to make money. And so you don’t have limited power and influence. You actually have the most power and the most influence. But that means working with your fellow colleagues, both in your job role and outside of your job role, and getting together and really deciding that this is not something that we’re going to tolerate. We are going to demand that either we are resourced in the way that we need to be um or more people are hired because it’s just– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –not sustainable to have us do more. And then if we’re not actually going to get the bonuses that were promised for the work that we’re doing, then what metric are we being measured against? And maybe completely reframe what the performance reviews are, because there’s absolutely no point in having a performance review if you are being rated against something that you are never going to get. Like there’s no–

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: There’s no way to get the bonus no matter what you do. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And so even if you do all of the same work, the same quality of work that you did the last time. To what end? Like, there’s no you’re just running in a wheel and you’re going to get worn down. And the best people who you work with are going to leave because they’re still going to be really great workers. They’re going to find other opportunities. And the folks who either have no choice or have no motivation to leave are who’s going to be left. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: This is something that I feel like we rarely talk about on this show. But it is so true that if you’re in a crappy, crappy work situation like this, the people that are your best colleagues, like you said, like if they have any ability to leave, they’re going to. And the situation is just going to get worse. And I actually think it’s even more demoralizing to have someone come in and they’re like all chipper and quote unquote “hungry,” and then you just watch. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yup. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It get like sucked out of them. [laughing] 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: As their spirit is broken down. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right? And you’re like, oh, well, I guess this is just what this job is. I guess this is who I am. Like, I am the person who cannot get out of the waste bin of this company. Um. And it’s really hard. It’s really hard. And I think that you’re right, though, that like the only way to actually push back is some form of solidarity. I think sometimes people are very, very scared off unnecessarily by the concept of a union. Solidarity does not have to look like a union. It can look like– 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: –so many different things. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. Solidarity looks like the coworker who let me know that I was being screwed on my pay. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: That’s, we were not in a union. There still is no union as far as I know at Pinterest, but there are networks of people sharing their information now for sure. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Why do you think that the tech industry is resistant to, we’ll just say solidarity more broadly? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: For the same reasons that Americans in general, even though we have a long history of unionization as a country and of worker solidarity as a country, uh but for the same reasons that in general society in our country is resistant to solidarity. Every not everyone, but many people think they’re uh one job away from being a billionaire. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. [laughing] 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Which is not the way becoming a billionaire works. [laugh] It’s not through working. [laughter] And so– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: That’s such a key point. It’s not through working. It’s never through work. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Nope, it’s through exploitation. And if you’re the one being exploited, you’re not going to be a billionaire. So but there is this dream that you are going to be the boss. And so if you’re going to be the boss, why would you screw things up for your future self, even though your– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –current self is suffering. And it’s it’s really sad. [laugh] And I think a lot more people are coming to the realization that they’re going to grind until they die. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Like we’re not we’re not living in a society where basic needs are being met for everyone. And so most people are going to grind until they die. And that is so depressing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I know. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: It’s so incredibly depressing that I think the only way to get out of that space is to form community with the people you work with and with people outside of work. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So what’s a way that Jenna could start this conversation with a coworker or with her team? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: We’re all on the same page that what was done to us was so shitty. So [laugh] can we can we agree on what we want? Because figuring out what you actually want and what you’re demanding of the powers that be is important. So do you want your performance reviews readjusted? Do you want to rework that whole process? If it’s not going to result in the bonuses that you were promised anyway? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: If you’re being asked to do tenfold the work. Do you need to hire more people and do you need to just make clear that these are the hours that we work, these are our job descriptions and this is the work we’re going to do. And so if it comes if it means that work’s not going to be done, how do we bring on more folks to make– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –the workload sustainable for everyone? Figuring that out and if neither of those things work, then where do you want to be? It, this seems miserable. [laughter] And so if you’re here because you need to be again, there’s no shame in that. People need to provide for themselves, for their families, for their communities. And so if this is a job that you need to work, just do your job. Do not do anything extra. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Um. And if it’s a job that you can leave, do that. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Like work to contract is the word within labor communities of like just do your job. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And that doesn’t mean that you’re lazy. It doesn’t mean that you’re not as good at your job. It means that your employers have not been respectful of your capacity to do your job well. Right. Like they’re not giving you the tools you need to do your job well. So just do your job if that’s what what needs to happen. I think one thing that you mentioned that I really liked is that when she reaches out to her coworkers, if she can say, what do we want? Like, what do we agree on? Instead of saying, I’m so mad about this, who will come with me to complain about this essentially? If you can gain consensus first, even if it’s not about everything that you are personally mad about, even if it’s just some of those things, then that will, I think, put you on the right footing. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And in that, inherent in that is checking your privilege and the conversations that you’re having. Because like I said in my position, I didn’t have kids. I was able to speak up in a way that a colleague who had kids may not have been. I spoke to colleagues who wanted desperately to leave their jobs, but that meant three people in their family would have no health insurance. And so– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: I had to understand, as angry as I am about this for all of us, I am not going to make you feel bad about not speaking up, about not signing on to things, about uh not even being able to be in the group chat about this just in– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –case the company found out. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: That’s great advice. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is also about overwork, but this time it’s in the name of getting ahead. This is from Sophie and our colleague Ashley is going to read it. 

 

Ashley: I’m a 30 year old woman working in the biotech industry. I’ve worked at my company of a thousand plus employees for two years, and it is the first real job I’ve had after finishing my Ph.D. I’m struggling with the fundamental tension between advancing my career by working hard and demonstrating my skills to my bosses and contributing to my own exploitation by ending up working longer hours than I’m paid for or taking on work that’s not technically my responsibility. I want to get ahead, but I resent having to work for free and sacrifice my free time to achieve that. My company runs on a strange system where in order to be promoted, you’re kind of expected to take on the hours and responsibility of the higher level position you want to get into and essentially do that job for your current lower pay for an unspecified amount of time until you are considered for promotion. That feels like bullshit to me. I like my boss and my team and the work I do, so I’m hesitant to quit and find something else in case it’s even worse. I’d love your perspective. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So first of all, praise to this person who is somehow coming out of academia with really great boundaries and a really great understanding of what she’s worth. That is so rare. [laugh] So I’m just like, really in awe of that. But how common do you think this expectation that like, oh, you just hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle, and that’s how you can like even sustain yourself in tech? How common is that? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Incredibly common. Um. She said that it feels weird or felt weird that you do the job of the next level to get it. Every single job that I had at Google, at Facebook, at Pinterest, they pulled that scam. Uh. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And I say scam because it is a scam, you’re [laugh] doing someone else’s role. You’re not getting the backpay if you do finally get promoted, and so you’re just doing the work of someone else and they get that for free for the– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –six months, a year to three years that you’re doing that work with the hope that one day you get promoted to guess what the job you’ve been doing. So [laughter] it’s absolutely a scam. I love the boundaries that this person is setting. And so I think you just have to decide what do you what do you want? What are you getting out of this job? Is it setting you up for the next role that you want? Is it setting you up for not a role for running your own company, for being a freelancer? Like, what is it that you want out of this? And then set limits around that because they’ve already told you exactly how this workplace operates. They’re not going to change their system of making you do the work of the level ahead before you’re even considered for the promotion. Um. And I think it’s still important to raise that it’s a scam to everyone who will listen, including your higher ups and your coworkers. But don’t expect that they’re going to change that. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: It’s working quite well for them because it means they don’t have to hire someone to do that work. You’re doing it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laugh] Right? I had a I had a friend whose boss resigned and she just backfilled that position for years and they were like, we just want, you know, to test you out in the position. No, no back pay. Right like– 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Nope. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: –and then did the work. Like this was in tech and promoted her and [?] were like, Oh, it’s amazing that you got promoted. I feel like she did that job for two years. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [sigh] Just preposterous.

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And you’re supposed to be grateful. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And in an industry where in many cases, your pay isn’t just made up of cash, it’s made up of stock in the company. You are losing out on the value of the stock that you should have gotten if you were actually formally promoted into that role. And so that’s something that I think is important to think about as well. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Maybe it’s 20, $30,000, which is a lot of money for most people, but does not seem like that much in this industry. If you’re a white collar worker, especially at a certain level, especially with a Ph.D. So when you’re just running the basic numbers, it may not seem like that big of a deal to spend two or three years or even six months doing the work at the level ahead of you. But I want you to also calculate, what are the RSU’s that you’re missing out on. Those are restricted stock units. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: For companies that issue those. What is the equity that you’re missing out on that someone who is hired into that role that you’re doing would be getting? And then think about whether it’s actually worth it to be doing this. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So I really like the piece of advice that you gave about looking at your position right now and thinking about, okay, what is this a tool for? Right. Am I actually learning something incredibly valuable here? Do I, for some reason, really feel strongly? Maybe it’s like a standard in the industry or whatever like that I need to have three years under my belt at this company before moving on. Am I trying to save up for a down payment and want to have real security for this amount of time? Is there going to be another big life change in my life for whatever reason, and kind of get out from underneath that cloud of like dissatisfaction with the job, which is so real to think, what is the job for? What is my timeline? And just kind of get a little bit of that objectivity with like, okay, what’s my plan here? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yup. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And then I think it’ll be easier to see, like, okay, maybe, yes, it will be worse somewhere else or it’ll be the same somewhere else. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: And even if it’s the same, I one of the reasons why I and this may be different in other industries, but at least in tech, often the saying is the only way to move up is to move out. And so– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: If that’s the case for you within biotech, maybe it it actually isn’t worth it to continue grinding at this company in this role where if you just move to another company, you actually would be in that role that they’re trying to get you to do for free at your– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Exactly. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –existing company. You work there for another year, 18 months, two years, and then you move to the next place. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I also think one thing that she could do is sort of like, she’s like spelunking in terms of figuring out her options is send out feelers at different companies to see, okay, is there a little bit better boundaries in terms of like this is the work that’s expected of us and here are the hours that we’re expected to do it just more of a fit with her, I think very healthy understanding of what work should look like. And so there, I mean, she’s not going to find a unicorn, but she might find something that’s slightly better and be able to set those boundaries from the beginning, which is often hard to do in your first job, out of school, whatever level of skill that is. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yep. Yep.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So the second half of our episode is going to be about the culture of tech and who fits in. This is from Alana and our executive producer Kendra is going to read it for us. 

 

Kendra James: I’m a woman in tech who has been able to quickly rise in the ranks, mostly because of my department. I’m typically a team of one in the orgs that I’m part of. This allows me to be part of executive leadership conversations despite not having the title or team to back it up. I’ve always prided myself on being very accessible and easy to talk to, which I think has helped me and been valuable in the relationship building. This is something that is always noted really positively in my reviews. On the flip side, I sometimes get feedback that my personality is too casual and that I could, quote, “work on my executive presence.” I’m not ever given specific examples, but I’ve been told to mirror females who are not as outgoing or seem very one note or bland. While I totally get that some could get this feedback because they’re unprofessional, you know, saying inappropriate things or taking up too much space in a room that doesn’t allow other coworkers to speak and express their ideas, I know that this is not what they’re getting at. I’ve even pushed for examples so that I can ensure that that isn’t what’s happening. I can’t help but feel like this is a direct attack on me as a person of color, a female who’s younger than my other colleagues. And it feels like an attempt to force me to act in line with the all white older executive expectations. I also know there’s a double standard as I’ve seen men act in very extroverted ways, but they’re seen as innovative or creative. While I’m seen as too much, and I’m not taken seriously. These aren’t actual terms I’ve been told, but it’s definitely the vibe I’m getting from my manager. Outside of this, I get exceptional reviews on my work. I’m constantly lauded for my performance, but I don’t feel like my whole self is being accepted in the workplace. Do I say something? Do I stay silent? Do I go freelance so I don’t have to deal with workplace politics? Please help. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. What is your reaction to this one? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Um. I’m going to work backwards a little bit. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: As someone who’s been, quote unquote, “freelance” since leaving uh since being pushed out of my last role, um there’s workplace politics everywhere. And so there’s no there’s no truly avoiding that. So I wouldn’t think of that as the way to get completely out of dealing with other people’s B.S. in a professional situation. So just think about that and then sort of jumping around back to the very beginning. I think it may feel flattering to be invited to executive conversations, but if you’re the only one not actually being paid as an executive in these conversations, then I do wonder what your expectation is for how they consider you compared to the other actual executives. You’re not– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: You’re not an executive. That’s and that just understanding plainly what they’re saying to you versus how they’re actually valuing you, I think is really, really important um because they’re going to say you’re great at your job, You do all of these things. And then there are these little snide comments that they’re that they’re slipping in that I see you have an issue with rightly. I do think that a lot of what’s being said about you is coded and has to do with your identity. But the bigger issue I’m saying is that you’re doing executive work and you’re not being paid it or titled as an executive, uh and that should be the biggest qualm that you have because it doesn’t matter what you model yourself after. Um and I do want to caution identifying other female colleagues as bland or one note, because there may be a reason why they’re coming across that way. Maybe they’ve just understood that they’re never going to be valued at this company or in the roles that they’re in and so they’ve decided to step back and so. [laugh] 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: You’re all you’re going to see is them doing their role and that’s it. They’re not going to do extra. They’re not going to go above and beyond. They’re not going to try to be, quote unquote, “friendly” with folks because that’s not what they’re being paid to do. So there are a number of things going on here. Um. I understand wanting them to see you for who you are. That’s just, I don’t think, a reasonable expectation in most workplaces. There are places where you can bring your whole self. Work isn’t one of them usually, and doesn’t need to be honestly, because you’re there, uh you’re exchanging your labor for pay. Hopefully the pay is adequate. Hopefully the pay is what you deserve. In this case, it seems like the answer is no, it is not. And so let’s work on that first and then everything else sort of take what is helpful and leave what isn’t. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I get the feeling from this question that there’s a difficulty parsing how much of the expectation is like being more part of the white culture of this workplace, which is offensive, and part of it, though, is also be more part of a workplace and maybe don’t have the expectation or maybe change your expectation of what parts of yourself you want to prioritize being at work. Do you see it like that’s a hard one, I think. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: No, that’s exactly what what I’m feeling about this. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: That like I understand that you want your workplace to be dynamic and you want them to see and appreciate you for everything that you’re bringing, including your personality, but they’re not even appreciating you for the work that you’re doing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: So I so we have to prioritize things. And I don’t think that them appreciating your personality can even be on the list if they’re expecting you to do executive work, you’re rising up quickly, but not actually if you’re not an executive, you don’t have the title, you don’t have a team, but you’re in executive conversations. One of the things that I think is sort of uh in some ways demeaning to younger workers or people who are who are earlier in their careers. Is the joke or meme that when you first join a workplace, you want to be in all of the meetings and the older you get, you understand like not being in the meetings is actually what you should be aiming for. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: This this reminded me of that. Like, no, no, you’re you’re not being paid to be in the meetings, but you’re in the meetings, which means you’re probably doing a ton of work for these meetings. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: You’re doing a ton of work that you’re not being recognized for either by being given a team to manage or by being given the title and the pay and everything else that comes with that. And so you’re just doing the work and they get to feel good about having a woman of color in the room. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: At these executive conversations. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. [laugh]

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Even though the org chart, you’re nowhere to be seen in that top tier in the org chart. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So they have the woman of color in these exec meetings so they can feel like they have that perspective there. But then when she asks them for feedback, which she might be asking for feedback in order to see how she can have a title that would befit being in these executive meetings, they’re like, oh, well, [laugh] like this, your personality essentially isn’t bland enough. They are putting her in a really difficult position and she’s kind of feeding into it. Like the eagerness– 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: –to be there. Yeah, and that is hard. Like we can acknowledge like they are putting you into this really difficult position, which is like, be here, be eager, don’t get paid, be quieter. [laugh]

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: There’s no way to win. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: There’s no way to win. And so I say focus on getting the title or the team, whatever it is that you need to actually be recognized as being an executive or in the executive team sphere so that it makes sense that you’re actually part of these conversations. And then I think too, as unfortunate as it is, as much as title shouldn’t matter and these companies pretend to be flat, they’re not. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Nope. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Because otherwise you wouldn’t have executive leadership as a title for people. And so understanding that that’s the case, then just figure out what you need to move up and actually get the recognition at work that you deserve. And if that’s not going to happen, then maybe take your skills elsewhere. [music break]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Our last question is another look at this culture. It’s from Gloria and our colleague Reyna is going to read it. 

 

Reyna: I recently started at a venture capital firm. This is my first time working in an admin role in the finance tech space, and there has been quite a learning curve. I’ve never worked with people with incredible wealth and everyone knowing all these unspoken rules. I grew up in a happy middle class life but struggle to relate to the team when they discuss weekends in the Hamptons or rides on their private jet. How do you recommend grappling with class disparity when it’s ingrained in the culture of the workplace? And how do you recommend standing up for yourself in the workplace when people speak down at you because of your role and class? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So I just want to clarify, because I read this a couple of times, I think what their question asker is saying is that she has worked in admin roles in other jobs, and this is her first time working in an admin role in the finance tech space. And the culture is what she describes. So have you ever experienced a situation like this? You, I know you went to an Ivy League school, so– [laugh] 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yeah, I unfortunately, in my professional life, it hasn’t been a shock for me because I went to a boarding school in New England. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. [laugh]

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Um. And then I went to an Ivy League university in New England. Um. And so actually, I think in terms of class, Google was more diverse than where I had been for the last– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –eight years. As unfortunate as that is. And so I don’t have this exact experience. And then I think there’s, oof, there’s a really nasty level of classism that comes in just because you’re in an admin role. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: In these companies. People do look down on admins and many of these conversations that they’re having around you, it just feels sort of nasty that they’re talking about this because they they know they’re aware of who they’re speaking in front of and what they’re talking about. And so I don’t know that there’s anything that you can say that’s going to give people the manners that they clearly didn’t learn at home or at school or in their previous jobs. And so there’s just that. But then also finding a way to if this is a job that you like outside of this really nasty cultural piece, if this is a role that you need for this time in your life, how can you block out these conversations? Because just as unfortunate as this is, I don’t think it’s going to end. It sounds like you’re in the New York area if they’re talking about weekends in the Hamptons. Um. And so this is just going to be part of the conversation. One thing that may make you feel better is a lot of this is bullshit. [laughter] A lot of these people are not actually spending the weekends in the Hamptons at their own homes. Um. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: So just just keep that in mind if that makes you feel better, even a little bit. Just understand that many of the people who feel the need to talk about their wealth are not as wealthy as they actually are. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So this is what I was going to say, is that these conversations are people doing the work of performing class. Right? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: People, they are talking about it as a way of signaling to their peers and to you who is also their peer, their coworker. This is the money I have, this is the type of person that I am. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Mm hmm. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But it’s purely rhetoric and it’s it’s hollow. It is just class signifier. And I think, like, this is maybe cold comfort, but like, it is so performative, it is so pitiful in a lot of ways. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Gauche like there’s no, there’s and that also is what makes me wonder how much of what they’re saying is true, which doesn’t matter materially to you anyway. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Um. And how much of it is bullshit which they’re doing to make themselves feel better, the people who they see as their peers feel worse and– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –you who they don’t see as their peer, even though you absolutely are as even worse. Like they’re [laugh] of this is about bigging themselves up when they clearly don’t have the self-esteem to do that so– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Yes!

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Understand that that’s what this is. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and probably in this fintech, like these are probably, I think, like lower level associates. Right? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Who are experiencing some of the most like soul crushing, like ego crushing work experiences of their lives. And so the way that they try to build back that ego is by talking about their leisure activities and their performance of wealth. So with that understanding, which I think is good mental understanding, when and if these people are shitty to her, how do you think she can stand up for herself, or at least like resist it? Because I think there are ways that you can kind of like not let these people run all over you. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yeah, I mean, if they’re having a conversation that you don’t need to be a part of. I would step away. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: I would just step away. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: There’s no reason to subject yourself to that. Um. If someone has asked you to come into a room for something and whatever that is is done, then leave or ask them if what they need you for is done and make clear that you’re asking that because this conversation is not interesting to you. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Like, there’s there’s no reason to subject yourself to the nonsense. Um. And then if someone actually speaks down to you, I would make clear to them, to the extent that you feel safe and comfortable doing so uh that you are there to do your job. They’re there doing their job. Uh. Their job is made easier because you exist. And and so you’re serving a very important role at the organization. And just to make clear that that’s the case, if you have uh if someone is actually nasty to you directly and you have H.R., I would recommend speaking to H.R. about it, because even though H.R. is not there for you, is not there for any worker, you just want a paper trail of what has been going on. Because I’d bet anyone who is nasty to you has been nasty to other people. And so it’s helpful to have that record of what is going on. But just understand that these people don’t feel great about themselves because if they did, they would not be having these conversations. They uh don’t even like each other. So– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Like there’s no– [laugh] 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: No and they probably don’t– 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: You shouldn’t feel bad. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: –like themselves. Like–

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: They don’t like themselves, just baseline. They don’t like each other. That’s where all of this competition is coming in and one upping one another. And so this is not a circle of people you want to be friends with anyway. And so don’t feel bad about being left out, as horrible as that is. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: We like that’s something that we’re hopefully told from pre-K on, don’t feel bad about being left out, but it feels shitty to be left out. It just does. And so I’m sorry that this is happening. I’m sorry that that’s the case, but these people are terrible. [laughter] 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. The one last thing that I’ll add is that something I’ve seen used effectively by admins and also like people have told me in conversation that using this in their role as admin, as if someone treats you as their personal secretary, as like, can you fix this for me? Like all sorts of things, just be incredibly helpful at telling them exactly who they should contact that’s not you. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Yep. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You don’t have to be like that’s not on my job description, bro, but you can be like, I don’t handle that, here’s who you should email to handle that. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Usually there is a person and they know who that person is, but they’re asking you because they think that they can get you to do this work for them. If it’s not, if you don’t report to this person, you’re not their admin, then them asking you to do something. They should just ask another colleague like there’s absolutely no reason. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hopefully if they have any sort of intelligence after you redirecting them once or twice, they will not want the extra hassle or humiliation of you redirecting them again. So– 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hopefully that is the case. So this I think, has been an incredible hour of advice and I, I don’t feel better about the tech industry, but I do feel like we have provided some better options. And I guess as an ending question, is there anything about the industry as a whole that gives you like a modicum of hope? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Hmm. Not [laughter] not about the industry itself, but honestly– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: –about people um like you and the role that reporters and journalists serve and that ten years ago, it was all about worshipping at the feet of the tech CEOs. And even if you were a skeptical reporter, you couldn’t really get pieces placed that actually questioned, like, what is the harm benefit that’s taking place here? And we’re getting more of that. We’re getting a lot more of that. We’re getting more uh that’s covering what the actual worker experience is in the industry. And so the industry itself, no, still exploitive, [laugh] still horrible, is still wrecking people’s lives, but the coverage of it is different. And so I think that people are able to take a more nuanced view, um both as consumers and then as workers within the industry of what we’re actually facing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: The industry is not getting better, but we are getting better at holding it to account, slightly. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: In some ways. Yup. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. Where can people find you if they want to hear more from you? 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Oof, um don’t find me is my [laughter] is my first instinct. [laughing] But uh yes, where can you find me uh Twitter X, whatever it’s called. I’m on there. I think it’s just my first last. And then Instagram. I share never post because just no. [laugh] Anymore, but stories um and they almost never have anything to do with tech. It’s usually– 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Nothing. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Uh snark, the dogs, the goats, other livestock, sunsets here in Santa Fe that and then if you just happen to be in Santa Fe and we see each other, that’s another way. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I cannot recommend your Instagram enough, even if you don’t think you’re interested in goats and oh really good dogs. I mean, you are so I recommend following there. Thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been wonderful. 

 

Ifeoma Ozoma: Thank you so much. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen, narrating: Thanks so much for listening to Work Appropriate. We are working on a bunch of exciting episodes right now and we need your questions. We’ve got one episode that’s on your toughest management questions. We’re going to try to stump Melissa Nightingale, who’s been on the show several other times, dealing with management questions specifically. We’re doing another episode on all things about pregnancy and work and pregnancy leave and bereavement leave when it’s connected to pregnancy. So any of those questions, send them in. And then we’re doing another episode on creating a healthy and enjoyable remote work culture. It can be done. If any of these sound like something you’re going through, head to workappropriate.com to tell us your quandaries. That link works best on desktop, just FYI. If you’re using your phone, you can also email your question to us at WorkAppropriate@crooked.com. Don’t forget to follow us at @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content, host takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Instagram at @AnneHelenPetersen or you can sign up for my newsletter, Culture Steady at AnneHelen.substack.com. And if you like the show, leave us a review on your podcast app of choice. It really helps. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producer is Kendra James, Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. [music break]

 

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