After a year of planning, our rather large team finally got together for a two-day outbound event. On day one of the team-building activity, the boss on his customary smoking break was eagerly joined by the cigarette-smoking members of the team. Witnessing the bonhomie evolve, many non-smoking members who could withstand the smoke, soon joined their orbit. Energized by the clique, the boss regaled them with stories of the past, ‘off-the-record’ jokes about colleagues and ‘do-not-tell-anyone-I-said-so’ expansion plans for the team. They were having a blast. We got to know about what transpired from a well-meaning smoker who even told us ‘You should have joined.’
Clearly, the real building activity was during the smoking break!
Well, the geniality between the boss and the group of smokers continued back into work and strengthened over time. The boss openly called for the smoking buddies inside the team when he left for his smoking breaks and we continued to be left out of the intelligence and the camaraderie. Eventually, we felt ‘left out.’
It appeared as if in the following months, the career growth of those inside the clique was fast-tracked. We hardly discussed it openly as it was a gut-feeling that couldn’t be substantiated. We always wondered why?
Thanks to research, today, we know why.
What does research say?
Research by Zoë B. Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia shows that male employees assigned to male managers and working in close proximity with them were promoted faster, compared to being assigned female managers1. With anecdotal evidence indicating that employees who smoke spend time together, the research found male employees who smoke when moved under male managers who also smoke, spend more breaks with their manager and were promoted faster. The findings resonate with research arguing that people are inclined to favor proteges similar to themselves.
The impact of smoking breaks
Employees who do not smoke, run the risk of becoming outsiders to their team especially if their bosses smoke. They are left out of the intelligence that gets shared informally during such smoking breaks.
By not participating in the smoking break of a boss, they additionally run the risk of an unintentional fall off their boss’s radar. By extension, they miss out on a head start to opportunities for advancement and progression.
In short, the inclusion efforts of an organization can take a beating in teams where members find themselves excluded from smoking breaks. The repercussions of such exclusion are often intangible and tough to be quantified or proved.
Restoring Inclusion despite the smoking breaks
Getting everyone to feel included in teams where bosses and a few team members smoke, sounds like a tall order but is not impossible:
Here are a few approaches:
- D&I Trainings – Train employees and managers on the impact of smoking breaks on the exclusion of team members
- Building a supportive environment – Encourage an environment where employees and managers feel empowered to call out insider-outsider behavior
- Climate Surveys – Incorporate questions in climate surveys to understand specifically if team members felt excluded by not joining their boss’s and colleague’s smoking breaks. Feedback from the survey can be used to sensitize erring managers accordingly.
When organizations zealously cover the wide-ranging definition of diversity and inclusion with suitable initiatives and processes, they tend to overlook the vanilla kind of inclusion – i.e. getting existing team members to feel like ‘insiders’. Tackling this challenge does not call for a strong moral medicine, but on the contrary, a firm, gentle and consistent approach.
1 Paper released in the ‘The National Bureau of Economic Research’ https://www.nber.org/papers/w26530