Who Pays Tolls at Work, and Who Cruises on an Open Highway?
As organizations continue to navigate a changed world amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the reverberations of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of the issues that affect underrepresented groups in organizations, including women of all different races and ethnicities, have resurfaced with intensity. Missing out on opportunities and being excluded from key decisions, talked over in meetings, and overloaded with caretaking responsibilities, women — and other organizational “outsiders” who are different in some way from the majority group — face obstacle after obstacle in their careers. The authors’ in-depth framework for addressing these issues has the potential to connect individual action to systemic change. Their framework is based on the concept of outsider tolls that members of underrepresented groups have to pay while “insiders” cruise along an open road. Here, they illustrate three specific types of tolls outsiders face in organizations — opportunity, influence, and scrutiny tolls — and reframe them as negotiating opportunities for individuals and as focal points to push for organizational learning and change.
Laura* was a well-regarded division manager ready for a new opportunity, but none seemed to come her way. So she decided to put herself forward for a promotion into a corporate leadership role previously held by men with legal backgrounds. Though she wasn’t a lawyer, she believed her deep experience in the company provided a solid foundation for success in the position. Unfortunately, Laura was told she lacked the necessary experience and qualifications — an assessment she disagreed with.
Ayisha,* a Black woman, had just taken on a new role as a procurement manager and discovered that the company was systematically overpaying for a broad class of supplies. When she brought up her findings during a monthly meeting of the purchasing group, her concerns were ignored. And when Ayisha approached the head of procurement directly, he questioned her data and summarily dismissed her proposal to switch suppliers.
Miranda,* one of very few Latina senior managers at a technology firm, was accustomed to juggling multiple projects and complex stakeholder relationships in high-pressure situations. What she wasn’t used to was the scrutiny of her personal life that began during the pandemic. In her multiple daily Zoom meetings, Miranda’s colleagues offered remarks — some friendly and some hostile — about her children studying or playing in the background. While she continued to receive positive feedback from her customers, Miranda was concerned about how her work in the remote environment was perceived by others in her firm.
These women’s stories are far from unique. As organizations continue to navigate a changed world amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the reverberations of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of the issues that affect underrepresented groups in organizations, including women of all different races and ethnicities, have resurfaced with intensity. Missing out on opportunities and being excluded from key decisions, talked over in meetings, and overloaded with caretaking responsibilities, women — and other organizational “outsiders” who are different in some way from the majority group — face obstacle after obstacle in their careers. Organizations suffer, too. In upholding an uneven playing field, they deprive themselves of the full skills and talents of all their employees, which can result in costly retention issues, hiring challenges, and an unhealthy culture.
While advice abounds about how to address these issues, our in-depth work with companies offers a unique framework that has the potential to connect individual action to systemic change. Our framework is based on the concept of outsider tolls that members of underrepresented groups have to pay while “insiders” cruise along an open road. Just like physical toll booths on an interstate highway, organizational tolls not only slow down some people’s career progression — they also deplete these individuals’ resources as they try to advance their careers. At worst, outsiders run out of funds to pay the tolls they face, forcing them to exit the highway (i.e., the workplace) entirely.
While “outsider” status is often conferred by demographic characteristics that make some people part of organizational minorities, personal, organizational, societal, and global changes can make anyone an insider or outsider. Events like joining a new company, returning from leave, having your sponsor depart your organization, leadership changes, and company-wide reorganizations can all be triggers for turning insiders into outsiders and vice versa, steering people from one road to the other and perhaps back again. Organizational tolls tend to disproportionately affect women, people of color, and members of other groups that are underrepresented in organizational life and leadership.
Here, we’ll illustrate three specific types of tolls outsiders face in organizations — opportunity, influence, and scrutiny tolls — and reframe them as negotiating opportunities for individuals and as focal points to push for organizational learning and change.
Opportunity tolls show up in the unwritten rules and assumptions governing how individuals learn about new roles and assignments, gather information on their own eligibility, and position themselves to secure those opportunities. These tolls arise because many advancement opportunities are distributed without clear-cut criteria, formal processes, or oversight. In the absence of processes that ensure everyone gets equal consideration, managers often favor people who are similar to themselves or to the prototypical person who’s been successful in similar roles in the past. Insiders, who have people to give them visibility in the eyes of key decision makers or advice on how to land the new client or get onto the new project, are inherently better positioned to learn about opportunities to advance than outsiders who lack such connections.
Laura, the division manager seeking a new role, was not seen to fit the existing criteria for the position she applied to, and therefore encountered a classic opportunity toll. Despite her superiors’ hesitance, though, Laura believed that she could succeed in the role. Having experienced opportunity tolls in the past, she was prepared to negotiate for a trial run in the open role. Laura proposed a trial period with agreed-upon criteria for how her success would be evaluated in six months. With corporate leaders clear on what she needed to accomplish, Laura outperformed expectations during the trial period and was given the job on a permanent basis.
But she didn’t stop at paying her own tolls and moving forward in her career. She wanted to use her experience to push for broader organizational change. So, after several months, Laura revisited the situation with her boss to consider how existing role descriptions and the promotions process often created opportunity tolls for people who didn’t “look the part.” Working with HR, they reviewed not only how opportunities were publicized, but also how they were described. For example, they found that many role descriptions outlined unnecessarily aspirational qualities (such as formal degrees, experience managing large teams, or prior responsibility for a sizable bottom line) rather than realistic requirements. When the division revised its role descriptions to focus on attributes that were absolutely critical, a more diverse talent pool emerged. Following Laura’s example, the firm formalized trial periods as a policy open to all.
While Laura used negotiation to navigate opportunity tolls, she still paid tolls that her insider peers didn’t have to pay. Organizations have a critical responsibility to dismantle those tolls. One company we worked with instituted a practice whereby all leaders had to sponsor someone in their division to foster stronger networks and equalize visibility, and this became part of their yearly performance reviews. Another company piloted an opt-out (instead of the typical opt-in) promotion scheme, where after a certain tenure in a role, everyone was automatically considered for promotion.
In reorganization contexts or in times of abrupt change, like the pandemic, companies can use data to ensure that opportunities for new assignments or arrangements don’t go disproportionately to organizational insiders and that tolls from layoffs or reassignments don’t fall disproportionately on outsiders, whether they be newcomers, women, racial minorities, or part-time employees. Dismantling opportunity tolls allows organizations to benefit from the full skills and talents of all their employees, rather than just insiders who happen to be “in the know.”
Whereas opportunity tolls relate to access — or being in the “room where it happens” — influence tolls relate to having your voice heard once you’re in the room. Influence tolls hamper outsiders’ ability to advance in their careers by quite literally making them less influential than their insider peers.
Influence tolls arise because demographics affect status and power dynamics: who’s seen as the expert, whose voice matches decision-makers’ voices, and who’s more tuned in to the language to use and the issues (not) to raise in the organization. Lacking status and insider knowledge, outsiders end up being sidelined in decision-making processes and sometimes silenced and socially isolated. When given a voice, outsiders often see things differently, so they’re more likely to raise new perspectives, disagree with the consensus, and ask for new types of solutions. Sometimes, this can lead to them being labeled as troublemakers or not team players. Influence tolls result in a dynamic of constant relationship negotiation with colleagues, trying to balance the need to offer the right amount of respect and deference with the need to advance their agenda and have their voice influence the organization.
Influence tolls make it harder for people to negotiate buy-in and support, not just for specific ideas but also for their general standing in the organization. Ayisha, the procurement manager, quickly realized that she had to build a coalition to support her in order to get her voice heard. While she already had a reputation as a strong performer, she wasn’t densely connected in the company outside of the informal women of color network. So she reached out to a few members to ask for help in linking up with influential players. Several conversations later, Ayisha returned to speak with the head of procurement armed not only with additional data and helpful presentation tips from a well-respected executive, but also with the support of two more senior leaders who had a vested interest in seeing her plan succeed and who could amplify her arguments while lending her additional clout and credibility.
Ayisha’s conversations with members of the women of color network galvanized one of its senior leaders and a VP in the firm, Jada,* to raise the issue of how decisions get made in the company more broadly. During her many years at the firm, Jada had noticed a pattern of Black employees’ voices often getting drowned out in meetings. Seeing Ayisha advocate for herself inspired Jada to propose a new practice for meetings where everyone in the room would get equal air time to present their arguments in a round robin, and each idea would get debated for at least a few minutes. She also pushed to formalize an “inclusion lead” role for all meetings so that, on a rotating basis, one person would be responsible for monitoring interruptions and ensuring all colleagues got equal air time.
To reduce the damage of influence tolls, managers can proactively provide constructive feedback to outsiders on how to navigate the unspoken, informal norms of the organization and thereby increase their influence. To systematically dismantle influence tolls, managers and leaders can work to ensure that peers are given equal respect and equitable scope in their roles in terms of budget, number of reports, high-profile projects, and support for success. Sometimes, this can be surprisingly simple. In one large multinational company we worked with, certain senior-level promotions were announced via company-wide email. One year, a manager noticed that write-ups describing the promoted leaders’ accomplishments were consistently shorter for women compared to men, inadvertently communicating that the women were promoted based on less-impressive track records and that they were less credible and influential. An easy fix was to build in a simple process to monitor the length of the announcement write-ups to ensure consistency and communicate equal confidence in all leaders’ influence and authority.
Scrutiny tolls are based on stereotypical expectations of how members of certain groups should behave. These tolls hamper organizational outsiders’ ability to advance in their careers by placing them under a microscope. Whether they succeed or fail, insiders have the luxury of being treated as individuals, whereas ample research has shown that organizational minorities (i.e., outsiders) receive disproportionate attention for their actions as representatives of their demographic groups. For women, the famous “double bind” results in a trade-off between competence and likeability: They’re expected to be stereotypically “warm” and are scrutinized when they don’t exhibit warmth, but they also pay a toll for not asserting their own competence.
Miranda, the senior manager at a technology firm, realized she would have to respond to comments on her remote work. She arranged a meeting with her boss to discuss the feedback and, as part of that conversation, focused on what she had accomplished: Her results and performance against the previously agreed metrics. She also initiated a broader conversation about the criteria for evaluating performance in a remote working environment, proposing specific changes to the company’s existing evaluation scheme, such as requiring specific behavioral examples and evidence of impact to support managers’ feedback and soliciting comments in response to specific questions rather than open-ended text boxes.
Miranda’s manager was so impressed with her thoughtfulness and initiative that she asked her to assemble a team to develop a revised performance-evaluation system that could more fairly assess people’s contributions in remote work. Miranda not only turned the scrutiny toll she encountered into a negotiation for herself, but she also helped the organization dismantle scrutiny tolls for other outsiders by focusing evaluation criteria for remote work on objectively measurable and agreed-on metrics.
For managers and leaders, identifying and dismantling scrutiny tolls requires genuine listening and probing into how employees’ experiences in the organization differ between insiders and outsiders. Like Miranda’s manager, leaders can extrapolate from individual cases and spot patterns of inequitable treatment, which are the hallmarks of tolls. For example, do women get more unsolicited feedback on different aspects of their work or self-presentation than men? Are Black employees asked to be on committees with the expectation that they will speak for all Black employees? Identifying such patterns is the first step and should be followed by process changes that help level the playing field.
The Ultimate Cost of Tolls
Opportunity, influence, and scrutiny tolls not only slow down outsiders’ career progression compared to insiders, but they also deplete employees’ resources to advance their careers, sometimes forcing them out of the organization altogether. Importantly, operating toll booths and extracting tolls is also costly for organizations, which pay the price in terms of reduced overall productivity; recruiting, retention, and training costs; and, in some cases, payouts from costly lawsuits.
We’ve applied the outsider toll concept to the recent experience of Françoise Brougher, former chief operating officer of Pinterest. Despite her decades of experience, as soon as she took on her role of COO in 2016, tolls started popping up.
Brougher was told that she was too sensitive to feedback (a classic scrutiny toll). At the same time, she was directed by the CEO not to give constructive feedback to her peers (an influence toll). The irony of the situation was seemingly lost on the CEO. She was sidelined from key business meetings (another influence toll) even though, as COO, she was running half of Pinterest’s business. Brougher left Pinterest in 2020 and later settled a multimillion dollar gender discrimination lawsuit against the company.
Individuals have a role to play in negotiating around the tolls they encounter, but putting the onus on them to dismantle the toll system is unrealistic and unfair. Besides, people are increasingly unwilling to pay tolls, as evidenced by the “Great Resignation.” Simply put, a toll road system is inefficient for everyone involved. At this critical moment when organizational structures are being redesigned out of necessity, it’s more crucial than ever to ensure that we dismantle existing toll booths while taking care not to inadvertently construct new ones.
* Real name has been changed.