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  • Writer's pictureTaha Habib

Why I’m Not Interested In Your Intentions

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Welcome to a session of me grilling organizations and companies, big and small, who recruit new employees with the promise of a very well constructed social mission and a chance to belong to a “family” not a “company”. As someone who has been searching casually, then very seriously, for a full time job in the nonprofit/charity world for over a year now, I can’t tell you how sick I am at organizations describing their workplace culture as “joining the family”. I’m also not going to sit here and lie and say that in my efforts to attract candidates at jobs in my organizations over the years I haven’t myself used the family angle in posts. It was a part of the spiel and every big eye’d, fresh out of school wanting to do some good in the world, youth in the online job market was eating it up. And looking back at it now, I feel kinda bad. In a world where intentions would automatically equate to impact, this kind of recruiting tactic would not matter. Alas, the truth is that too often kind hearted, “missions-driven” organizations and companies who have the best intentions don’t have the structures and processes in place to truly live up to the promises made in the job description of a new hire.

“We’re looking for someone to join our family.”

Does anyone else understand that this is now a ad posted by parents in search of their new daughter-in-law? (iykyk) This statement brings a few thoughts that ultimately result in red flags for me. Firstly, if this family I am joining is anything like my ACTUAL family, this company or organization wants a very high level of emotional investment from me and there is for sure going to be some kind of gaslighting down the road when I start to emotionally burn out. Also, constant and sustained emotional vulnerability without adequate support leads to your professional life bleeding into your personal life, and striking the balance between the two becomes more and more blurred because you’re putting in the same amount of emotional labour in every aspect of your life. Soon enough, you’re left depleted in one or both areas of your life. Yeah, hard pass.

Secondly, just like in a family, these organizations can have favourites (don’t believe your parents when they say they don’t) and you have to belong to the in-groups in order to truly feel like you’re part of the family, even if the intention of leadership is to make everyone feel like they belong. This plays out when people are more comfortable relating and confiding in their peers who are on the same level of the workplace hierarchy and have a harder time building connections to management or leadership because there is a lack of transparency or communication between groups. While trying to construct an environment of familiarity and care, friendship and likability is given more importance than professional support, mentoring, and guiding. Which doesn’t always have the intended impact on employee morale and growth.

Thirdly, from personal experience, the hardest part of belonging to a “family” is addressing conflict. Any level of conflict is like 10 times harder to manage because of this kumbaya atmosphere that leads to questions like “what if they don’t like me anymore?” or “I don’t want to cause trouble.” OR my personal favorite (read: and the one I struggle with the most) “If I’m a part of a loving family where everyone is working so hard to make me feel good, why am I conflicted? I must be the problem.” It’s even harder when you are a person of colour, or neurodivergent, and are hard-wired to need to fit in and/or please. It’s very easy to say that we need to be brave to have conversations that are difficult and learn from them, make ourselves vulnerable and tackle the conflict with poise and compassion. But all that needs a very strong foundation of trust, and not all of us are wired to trust blindly. In fact, companies and organizations who want to invite you into their family are often smaller, or in the middle of an expansion, which means they have antiquated, or not fully fleshed out HR departments or policies or practices that do a poor job of supporting employees equitably. This sadly leads to a loss of trust in the org’s credibility of living up to what they promise. Some of us need processes, certainty of how things are going to play out and how we’ll be protected as employees, especially in a professional setting. Constantly asking employees to be honest and open and come in for a case-by-case conversation is one thing, and it can come from the kindest place in one’s heart, but having them open up and show trust and offering no path forward in return is, in my opinion, careless and damaging.

“We’re looking for someone who believes in the mission.”

Look closely, this is also a red flag. What can be a bigger motivator than a collective mission to make the world a better place?! The nonprofit, community, charity, do-good sector is notoriously known to have fluffy mission statements and offer very low salary points for the work they require for a given position. And the golden justification is that people who come to work for the organization whole-heartedly believe in the mission, and to them income is secondary. Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, just because your company or organization has a mission statement, it doesn’t mean your work is actually mission-driven. Gasp!

Many internal issues keep organizations from truly being mission-driven because of the lack of structure and systems to support staff members in comfortably working towards their goals. For example, if a company’s mission is to eradicate hunger in a city but can’t/won’t pay their employees a living wage and only make space for unpaid interns, they are doing a disservice to everyone involved and are not living up to their mission. Moreover, mission-driven work attracts people who are marginalized and are advocates for a cause, especially people who identify as QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), women and youth. This demographic is statistically prone to precarious living and employment conditions, especially demonstrated during the pandemic, and are more likely to be exploited by this kind of work. In addition, although the bottom line of mission-driven companies are stacked with QTBIPOC, women and youth, the management and leadership positions are still held by white, middle-aged men and women who already have access to generational wealth. Red. Flag.

Unfortunately, the small, grassroots nonprofit or charity organizations, small business, have a lot of needs that employees must provide for but because of funding structures they are very limited in how much money they can actually allocate to wages vs money spent on keeping the lights on. However, if you’re a multi-million dollar charity or foundation, a national or multinational social impact enterprise, this excuse to exploit your employees is pathetic and you’re perpetuating the same harm your mission is supposed to reduce.

“We’re dedicated to finding solutions together.”

Okay but are you really, though? And what does that mean? When a manager tries to create a safe space for brainstorming, and invites their team to throw ideas, and participate in the planning of the work strategy, especially in a new venture, a new project, they are trying to ensure the investment of the employees to the success of the project. I am here for it. That is awesome, in theory, and that is how you motivate your team. But when clear expectations and limitations are not disclosed in the ideation process, and ideas are constantly shot down, made to seem impossible, unattainable, or just “not a fit”, you’re losing everything you are trying to build. Employees and teammates feel deflated, unseen and useless to the process. If the only ideas worth considering and following up on are ones a leader comes up with, or agrees with, then they’re not leading - they’re stroking their own ego.

Moreover, there is a creation of in-groups and out-groups based on the hierarchical structure of the organization and ideation, especially leading to decision-making, is reserved to the top tier where leaders are of the same opinion about most things and are working in silos. Even though a flat or horizontal culture is preached, the reality is that information and conversations happen in a strictly need to know basis. These spaces, meant to promote innovation, creative problem solving and drive change, are now looking like an unattainable bubble reserved for the elite, creating division in the staff. This is especially the case when there is no transparency in the process of decision-making and no consulting of staff members before making decisions that impact them directly. You can keep telling your staff members that you are invested and are willing to invest in their professional development, you want them to be the best leaders they can be, but when you have no opportunities within the organization for them to actually climb the proverbial ladder, and have no capacity to connect your staff to outside opportunities that will let them grow, you’re not helping them.

If you don’t have the capacity, funding, resources, to uphold the ideals and culture you are trying to establish, you need to stop and honestly re-evaluate what you can actually do.

All this to say, in my experience in the nonprofit sector as an employee and as a consultant, I am no longer interested in any company’s or organization’s intentions, because they don’t mean much without evaluating their impact in the lives of their community members and staff.

I am interested in knowing how the top tier in these companies and organizations are including the bottom tier in decision-making processes that shape the organization’s work.

I am interested in knowing how the organization's leadership handles and implements feedback from staff members in the bottom tier.

I am interested in knowing what structures and systems are actively established, updated, and taken down to truly work towards inclusive practices for all employees.

I am interested in knowing what the organization or company is doing to look internally first to see if the mission they are promoting is actually applied to their structures, their policies, their culture.

I am interested in how often and to what degree are organizations and companies performing self-assessments to ensure they remain faithful to their mission and values.

I am interested in seeing organizations investing in company-wide pulse-checks, needs-assessments to make sure that they are living up to their promises made in their job descriptions.

The teacher in me is interested in you showing your work.


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