• Shahan Mahmood

The “Problem” Employee

Imagine this.

It’s your first day on the job and you’re happy to be here. You feel welcomed, needed, and are excited to be a part of the working team. You realize that many of your superiors (think executives) are predominantly white, however, you’re not worried because you’ve been treated so well and fair. Clearly, they must really like you, value you, and need you to meet company goals. You’re not simply a tokenized hire, you’re a member of the team—at least that’s what you think.

After spending a few years at the company, you notice a couple of issues. It seems like most of your team lacks diversity, and there are not many people that come from cultural and racial backgrounds similar to yours. You also notice some of the men in the company making a few sexist jokes—especially when they are talking about next summer’s interns. You seem to be the only one of “your kind”. Strange, isn’t it?

Upon consideration, you decide to raise your concerns. Gently, of course. You raise them with a few members of your team and reach out to HR so that you can help them in any way you can. You notice the issues, it’s just a matter of being able to create a plan to address them.

Unfortunately, there’s denial. The white leadership denies any issues, ignores your complaints, and actually somehow finds a way to blame you for raising them, or worse, creating them. The responsibility of fixing the problem is yours and yours alone. Some of your “ethnic” friends back you up, some of them are ignorant and instead join the leadership’s stance.

Now, you’re getting shoved left and right. You weren’t considered for the promotion, you were moved to the smaller desk space, or maybe they’ve decided to let you go. “You’re just not a good fit” is what you’re told. Perhaps, you even resigned.

You are the “problem” employee. Now you are gone—looking for a new place to work.

Unfortunately, this happens all too often for people of colour—particularly women. The cycle of being the problem employee is a barrier to productive and meaningful change within organizations. This institutional roadblock is one that can be frustrating and difficult to navigate. But how can we as a society address this? Going forward, what can we do to ensure that addressing workplace harassment, sexual violence, and problematic practices are not seen as a last resort?

1. Build better workplace practices

To support employees who gather enough courage and strength to come forward on issues within the workplace, there need to be specific people who can champion their voices. Traditionally, this would be HR. However, the key component is that the person receiving such information needs to have the power to make or initiate change. It’s useless if no decision-making authority is bestowed upon individuals learning of issues within the workplace.

2. Create employee assistance programs

EAPs are counselling services intended to help employees when they need it. This can look like in the form of mental health support, career support, and specific support relating to arising issues in the workplace. Investments need to be made to ensure marginalized groups feel comfortable speaking and sharing their experiences.

3. Revise hiring practices

Tokenism is never great and can significantly hurt a company’s goal of increasing diversity. It hurts employees. To counter tokenism, be open to changing the status quo in terms of hiring practices.

Labelling your peers or your staff as “problem” employees only deepen the problems your company faces. Instead, opt to listen, engage, and empathize with the experiences of your team members. It can go a long way to reducing turnover—especially for people in minority groups.

Simply put, companies need to start listening to their employees. Otherwise, they might end up becoming the “problem” company.


Page, K. (2019, December 12). The "problem" woman of colour in nonprofit organizations. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from

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