Self-awareness is an important workplace trait — and, as CNBC's Shepard Smith says, a potentially double-edged sword.
"I am not here to be your token," Smith recently said at the Association of LGBTQ Journalists 2021 National Convention. "I don't want to be the gay journalist, I want to be the journalist who is gay."
Smith, a longtime Fox News journalist who joined CNBC last year to host "The News with Shepard Smith," didn't publicly come out as gay until 2017 — but started telling close friends and coworkers a decade ago. Since then, he said, he's been made the "token gay" at work multiple times. "You know how they stereotype us [gay men]," Smith said. "We're emotional, we fly off the handle, we have chips on our shoulder."
Throughout his fireside chat, Smith emphasized that everyone — regardless of identity — needs to keep an eye out for workplace tokenism, when a manager expects you to be representative of your entire community. The moment you start to feel like the office's token, Smith said, it's time to meet with your manager.
In those moments, Smith said he kept his message simple: He's a professional, there to do a job, and nothing else should matter. Here's his advice for dealing with similar situations, no matter what stage of your career you're in.
Strategize a solution with your manager
Have an honest conversation with your immediate supervisor, Smith advised: Keep the discussion calm, and preferably not over email. "You don't fly off the handle, you don't talk about it behind people's back and you don't get into your cliques within the environment you work," he said.
During that conversation, you can point out specific stereotypes you've noticed other people ascribing to you, and help your boss understand that those stereotypes don't represent your entire community. You can also tell your manager that the diversity you bring to the team "is a bonus," Smith said, but ultimately you're there to do what's written in your job description. And that may include more than your manager is asking you to do.
"I think you have to stand up," Smith said. "I love to cover gay issues, just as I love to cover BLM [Black Lives Matter] issues and I love to cover anything about inclusivity."
It's also on bosses to create environments where those conversations can happen. Whenever a member of Smith's production team has an issue, he said, they're encouraged to bring it up: "It's how we want things to be here when our staff has an issue of any kind. Let's talk about it."
Knowing whether your conversation will actually fix the problem can be the real challenge. Nearly one in five employees left their jobs between 2014 and 2019 due to toxic workplace cultures, according to a 2019 research report from the Society for Human Resource Management.
"We have to figure out a realistic goal of this conversation," author and speaker Kwame Christian told CNBC Make It last year, in a conversation about racial equality at work. "If it's just for you to be heard, great, that we can accomplish. If we want to talk about what we can do in workplace to have important dialogues about this, we have to strategize a solution."
Smith said that if your initial conversation with your manager doesn't resolve the issue, you can escalate the discussion "all the way to the top of the Human Resources ladder" until you find success. "I think you have to stand up," he said. "Navigating these waters is a new thing, and things that people might have said 10 years ago are not acceptable today — and weren't acceptable then."
The burden to start these conversations often falls disproportionately on employees' shoulders. For Smith, the key to prompting a two-sided discussion is simply offering a catalyst — and giving leadership the opportunity to make things right, once they're aware of the problem.
"I've found that most people who are outside of our [LGBTQ] community want to do it right," Smith said. "And sometimes they want our help learning how."
Watch "The News with Shepard Smith" on CNBC, Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. ET.
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter