I’ve been thinking recently about anti-racism and what it looks like to support colleagues from underrepresented groups at work. The other day someone in a Slack group made an offhand comment that they’d sent a message to an engineer’s manager to say that the engineer was doing exceptional work.
I think telling someone’s manager they’re doing great work is a pretty common practice and it can be really helpful, but it’s easy to forget to do and I wish someone had suggested it to me earlier. So let’s talk about it!
I tweeted about this to ask how people approach it and as usual I got a ton of great replies that I’m going to summarize here.
We’re going to talk about what to say, when to do this, and why you should ask first.
ask if it’s ok first
One thing that at least 6 different people brought up was the importance of asking first. It might not be obvious why this is important at first — you’re saying something positive! What’s the problem?
So here are some potential reasons saying something positive to someone’s manager could backfire:
- Giving someone a compliment that’s not in line with their current goals. For example, if your coworker is trying to focus on becoming a technical expert in their domain and you’re impressed with their project management skills, they might not want their project management highlighted (or vice versa!).
- Giving someone the wrong “level” of compliment. For example, if they’re a very senior engineer and you say something like “PERSON did SIMPLE_ROUTINE_TASK really well!” — that doesn’t reflect well on them and feels condescending. This can happen if you don’t know the person’s position or don’t understand the expectations for their role.
- If your coworker was supposed to be focusing on a specific project, and you’re complimenting them for helping with something totally unrelated, their manager might think that they’re not focusing on their “real” work. One person mentioned that they got reprimanded by their manager for getting a spot peer bonus for helping someone on another team.
- Some people have terrible managers (for example, maybe the manager will feel threatened by your coworker excelling)
- Some people just don’t like being called out in that way, and are happy with the level of recognition they’re getting!
Overall: a lot of people (for very good reasons!) want to have control over the kind of feedback their manager hears about them.
So just ask first! (“hey, I was really impressed with your work on X project and wanted to send this note to $MANAGER to explain how important your work because I know she wasn’t that involved in X project and might not have seen everything you did, is that ok with you?”)
when it’s important: to highlight work that isn’t being recognized
Okay, now let’s talk about when this is important to do. I think this is pretty simple – managers don’t always see the work their reports are doing, and if someone is doing really amazing work that their manager isn’t seeing, they won’t get promoted as quickly. So it’s helpful to tell managers about work that they may not be seeing.
Here are some examples of types of important work that might be underrecognized:
- work by someone from another department (maybe their manager doesn’t understand how helpful their contribution was to the company because they don’t work with your team that much, but your coworker’s work made a huge difference!)
- work that happened in a private channel (for example if someone spent hours helping you with something 1:1 and it really made a big difference to the success of your project)
- work preventing problems, which often isn’t as visible as firefighting work
- work by people from underestimated groups (maybe your coworker’s work isn’t being recognized as much as it should be because of racism/sexism/etc!)
- documentation/code review/other kinds of work that aren’t always as visible as programming
- work by remotes (if remote work is less visible at your company)
- work by someone in a role that’s typically underrecognized (someone mentioned support as an example)
Also, everyone agreed that it’s always great to highlight the contributions of more junior coworkers when they’re doing well.
why it matters: it helps managers make a case for promotion
For someone to get promoted, they need evidence that they’ve been doing valuable work, and managers don’t always have the time to put together all that evidence. So it’s important to be proactive!
You can work on this for yourself by writing a brag document, but having statements from coworkers explaining how great your work really helps build credibility.
So providing these statements for your coworkers can help them get recognized in a timely way for the great work they did (instead of getting promoted a year later or something). It’s extra helpful to do this if you know the person is up for promotion.
how to do it: be specific, explain the impact of their work
Pretty much everyone agreed that it’s helpful to explain what specifically the person did that was awesome (“X did an incredible job of designing this system and we haven’t had any major operational issues with it in the 6 months since it launched, which is really unusual for a project of that scale”).
how to do it: highlight when they’re exceeding expectations
Because the point is to help people get promoted, it’s important to highlight when people are exceeding expectations for their level, for example if they’re not a senior engineer yet but they’re doing the kind of work you’d expect from a senior engineer.
how to do it: send the person the message too
We already basically covered this in “ask the person first”, but especially if I’m using a feedback system where the person might not get the feedback immediately I like to send it to them directly as well. It’s nice for them to hear and they can also use it later on!
public recognition can be great too!
A couple of folks mentioned that they like to give public recognition, like mentioning how great a job someone did in a Slack channel or team meeting.
Two reasons public recognition can be good:
- It helps build credibility for your colleague
- It lets the person you’re recognizing be part of the conversation/reciprocate to the feedback-giver, especially if the work was a collaboration.
Again, it’s good to ask about this before doing this – some people dislike public recognition.
on peer bonuses
A few people who work at Google (or other companies with peer bonuses) mentioned that they prefer to give peer bonuses for this because it’s a more official form of recognition.
Lots of people mentioned other forms of feedback systems that they use instead of email. Use whatever form of recognition is appropriate at your company!
anyone can do this
What I like about this is it’s a way everyone can help their coworkers – even if you’re really new and don’t feel that qualified to comment on how effective someone more senior is at their job, you can still point out things like “this person helped me do a project that was really out of my comfort zone!”
maybe expand the set of people you do this for!
I think it’s very common for people to promote the work of their friends in this way. I’ve tried to expand the set of people I do this for over time – I think it’s important to keep an eye out for coworkers who are really excelling and to make sure their work is recognized.
more reading on sponsorship
I wanted to just talk about this one specific practice of telling someone’s manager they’re doing great work but there are a LOT of other ways you can help lift your coworkers up. Lara Hogan’s post what does sponsorship look like? has a lot of great examples.
Mekka Okereke has a wonderful Twitter thread about another way you can support underrepresented folks: by being a “difficulty anchor”. It’s short and definitely worth a read.
thanks to Sher Minn Chong, Allie Jones, and Kamal Marhubi for reading a draft of this