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‘Workplace privilege’ is the key to getting ahead, according to millennial career guru

April 12, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

It’s been 86 years since Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People revolutionized the self-help genre. 

Last year, Gorick Ng put a millennial spin on the subject. The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right is his attempt as a first-generation college graduate to bring Carnegie’s story into the 21st century.

Ng, the 30-year-old son of a working-class single mother, became the first in his family to graduate college. He went to Harvard, and then Harvard Business School, and then had stints as an investment banker and management consultant. Now, he’s dedicating his career to exposing what he calls “workplace privilege.”

His big secret: It’s not about performance. The way to acquire privilege in the workplace, Ng says, is to make yourself known. Carnegie would be proud.

Knowing names

Ng told Fortune he sees privilege as a multipronged force that can manifest in small moments in the workplace. One of the biggest privileges a young worker can have, he says, is knowing someone in upper management—even just as a passing acquaintance.

He defines privilege—as it pertains to the workplace—as a special right, advantage, or immunity, granted or available only to a particular person. This could look like a fast-track interview, feeling comfortable and welcome at the office without changing how one naturally speaks or dresses, access to senior leadership, fewer consequences for mistakes, or even just having a meeting room quieting down and listening to someone speak. 

The first step to fixing it? Figuring out which camp you’re in and going from there. 

The most important first move: making yourself known to the most important people at the organization, regardless of how senior. 

Write that person an email, he says, that emphasizes a similarity. “Say, ‘Hi so-and-so, I’m so-and-so, and, like you, I also grew up here, or majored in this, or did this extracurricular activity.’” 

After you’ve written that out, reread the email: Think to yourself, if you accidentally sent it to someone else, would it still make sense? If so, it’s probably not personalized enough. 

Across the board, young people need to demonstrate the “Three Cs” to get ahead in any business environment: competence, commitment, and compatibility. Counter to the many drawbacks of remote work—and there are many—Ng sees some upsides for new workforce entrants. 

“Remote work and the need to ‘calenderize’ everything has actually leveled the playing field,” he tells Fortune. “The word on the street is that business school is all about networking. For introverts, that’s a nerve-racking experience. But the pandemic has totally changed that.”

“So much has changed, but people still respond to relatability,” he says. “If you’re able to make those connections, you don’t need to have accomplished certain things or retained certain titles.”

People tend to think of capital in terms of money, but when it comes to career building, money pales in comparison to interpersonal skills.

“The big three are social capital, who you know; human capital, what you know and can do; and reputation capital, what people know you for,” he says. “The more attention you pay to these, the more you build on them and use them wisely, the more strategic you can be with your career.” 

Leveling the playing field

If you do have that privilege, Ng stresses that it’s incumbent upon you to do what you can to pass it along to your coworkers who may not. 

In a talk at Harvard Business Review’s HBR Live event on Thursday, Ng proposed five tactics.

The first: Broker introductions. “Try the line, ‘I’d love to introduce you to someone, given that you’re both interested in this topic,’” he says. This gives everyone the chance to have exposure to a higher-up. 

The second: Be a mentor. “This could mean saying, ‘Hey, I’d love to learn more about what you’re working on’ to someone who is perhaps a level below you,’” he says. “Just because someone isn’t speaking up in meetings doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say. There may just be someone else talking louder, for longer.”

The third: Make opportunities accessible. When you come across an opportunity, ask yourself whether it will be accessible to everyone based on when it’s held and who knows about it. “This includes small talk at work, where it can be easy to talk about what’s most familiar to us without regard for whether everyone can relate,” he says. 

The fourth: Help others be seen and heard. In practice, that means speaking up when someone is overlooked or spoken over. “In a meeting, you can say, ‘So-and-so raised an excellent point earlier. Mind elaborating?’” he says, as a method of drawing attention back in that person’s direction.

Finally, tactic five is what Ng calls “rotating the nonglamorous.” This could look like speaking up about taking turns being the meeting notetaker, and not assuming one person should always shoulder administrative work or even things like organizing office birthdays or activities. 

Ng, who speaks at several companies and consults on organizational development and talent retention, says employees, more often than not, care most about the minutiae of their job, not the big events. “They care about the everyday frictions that make life a drag,” he says. “From not knowing anyone, to not being seen and heard, to not knowing what’s going on in the organization, [these dynamics] can really make the difference between someone who’s engaged and someone who’s disengaged.”

How to win friends and influence people has changed a lot in 86 years. Now it comes with understanding others’ privilege, and turning it to your advantage.

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