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The double-edged sword of diversity: How ‘cultural tax’ is undermining equity, inclusion in workplaces

October 30, 2023
By Eddy Ng, Professor of Equity & Inclusion, Smith School of Business

Photo: Adobe Stock

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are becoming a must-have for companies across Canada. And while there is much to be celebrated, diversity efforts are having a hidden impact on the same employees they claim to support: a cultural tax.

You’re likely more familiar with the term emotional tax, the state of being on guard and prepared to deal with potential bias or discrimination.

Fifty-one per cent of people from marginalized racial and ethnic groups in Canada experience this in the workplace. Unfortunately, workplace efforts to combat this issue by fostering a climate of inclusion is often what leads to cultural taxation.

With the rise in DEI initiatives, people from equity-seeking groups are often called upon – and feel obligated– to take on work outside of the job they were hired to do, in the spirit of affecting change. In doing so, employers are inadvertently impacting their employees’ well-being and careers, and hindering the very results they are trying to achieve.


So, what exactly does cultural tax look like in the workplace and how can business leaders avoid placing this burden on their employees?

The cultural tax and how it shows up at work

Cultural taxation is a form of additional, invisible, and uncompensated work demanded of underrepresented minority employees.

These employees are expected to support organizational needs by provide racial, cultural, and gender representation and share their knowledge and expertise, be it on boards, or committees, at events or in mentorship initiatives.

Speaking as a professor, this can be particularly prevalent in education, since underrepresented minority faculty are expected to educate, act as role models, mentor minority students and colleagues, and perform added service work to provide representation to the academy. It’s a form of “conscription” because minority employees can’t avoid this burden – they are expected to “speak up for their people.”

It is a tax that minority employees are expected to pay to demonstrate good citizenship, and it’s a form of labour that is not demanded or expected of white employees.

Why cultural tax is a problem

Organizations can have good intentions when it comes to equity, diversity and inclusion, but they often rely solely on underrepresented minority employees to lead the charge towards greater representation. While this work is important and required, it is the employers that reap the benefits in the form of awards and accolades, such as “Best Place to Work” awards for women, minorities and LGBTQ2S+ Canadians.

Meanwhile, the employees driving this success receive nothing; their work behind the scenes is unrecognized and uncompensated.

In fact, the cultural tax can be a silent killer of careers for minority employees. Employees from equity-seeking groups are often expected to educate their coworkers, lead initiatives, and mentor junior colleagues  – and relive their trauma and struggles each time.

The work is taxing and emotionally exhausting. It is also poorly understood and undervalued. As a result, underrepresented minority employees are frequently held back in their professional careers in service of their employers.

Three steps to help guard against the cultural tax

In an ideal world, organizations would have a critical mass of diverse employees to provide representation and support for the organization. However, most organizations remain challenged in achieving this, which often results in even greater taxation.

For instance, a Black female employee is called upon to be the voice for women, and separately to be the voice for racialized employees in the organization, effectively imposing double the taxation on the employee. The work that is required is often viewed as citizenship or service work – uncompensated and performed on a volunteer basis, on an employee’s own time, but important to help the organization meet their goals. Here are three steps business leaders can take to avoid the cultural tax:

Compensate diverse employees fairly or look for resources elsewhere. Employers should recognize and compensate for the work that is asked of minority employees. Organizations can also look externally for expertise, instead of requiring minority employees to perform the work for free. Many academic institutions in Canada offer online resources for employees and business leaders to understand how to approach equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace – and become better allies for their coworkers.

Set limits to the amount of service work that is placed on minority employees. Let minority employees do the jobs they were hired to do. DEI service work is challenging and emotionally exhausting, which can lead to burnout and stress. Relieving cultural taxation at work can help underrepresented employees flourish and improve their mental health and wellbeing, by allowing them to focus their talents and abilities on their careers.

Involve white, cisgender, heterosexual men in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. This creates a sense of fairness and equity by asking both underrepresented minorities and represented employees to participate. It also helps employees with adequate representation to understand and appreciate how much work is being asked of their underrepresented minority colleagues, allowing them to see the cultural tax firsthand. Further, it fosters “perspective taking” among represented employees, allowing them to understand – sometimes for the first time – the experiences that their minority colleagues face while navigating the workplace.

Business executives and employees need to take action to nurture inclusive and equitable work environments. Underrepresented employees cannot and should not be expected to account for organizations’ DEI progress; everyone has a role to play. Show up, share the burden, and help drive meaningful change.

Eddy Ng is professor of Equity & Inclusion at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

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