If you don’t participate in your workplace culture the expected way, you might hear, “You’re not being a team player.” But what are the qualities of a team player, and why are some viewed as more acceptable than others?
Brave Conversations with LCW Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by DEI Practitioner and Founder of her own consultancy Rahimeh Ramezany (she/her) to discuss her lived experience as a Muslim woman in the workplace. Don’t miss their conversation on how expectations based on team unity can actually be exclusionary, causing companies to lose out on a diversity of top talent.
Meet Our Guest
Rahimeh Ramezany (she/her) is a multiethnic, neurodiverse, Muslim American woman, and a diversity, equity, inclusion, and intercultural practitioner. She founded her DEI business in 2021 in order to train organizations on how to include Muslims and religious identity in their existing DEI efforts, while developing nuanced understandings and practical DEI skills that can be applied across identity groups.
Rahimeh leverages her lived experiences at the intersections of multiple marginalized and privileged identities, a master’s degree in intercultural communication, and years of professional DEI experience to address the often deeply uncomfortable but nonetheless essential work of making our spaces inclusive and equitable for all.
Show Notes & Highlights
4:18 Rahimeh shares the traditional definition of being a “team player”
8:52 Rahimeh connects the phrase to subtle and outward Islamophobia in society
19:17 Rahimeh reflects on the exclusive nature of alcohol in networking events
26:20 Rahimeh offers advice for people targeted by coded language
29:13 Rahimeh offers advice for allies who witness this phrase in the workplace
Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.
For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to the develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and hear personal stories and tips to help us notice and call in bias.
Well, hello and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW, where we break down terms that could have coded language implications. And today we’re going to be talking about a phrase that you might hear if you don’t necessarily participate in your workplace’s culture the expected way. You might hear this phrase, “You’re not being a team player.”
But what are the qualities of a team player, and why are some viewed as more acceptable than others? To help me have this conversation today, I am joined by DEI Practitioner and Founder of her own consultancy, Rahimeh Ramezany, who is going to share her lived experiences as a Muslim woman in the workplace.
Could you please introduce yourself to our listeners and then maybe share a little bit about your personal experiences around this coded phrase “you’re not being a team player?”
Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you, Larry, so, so much. I appreciate the introduction. Hello everyone, my name is Rahimeh Ramezany. I use she/her pronouns. I’m a diversity, equity, inclusion intercultural practitioner, which I just use to sum up all the things: trainers, speaker.
I like to talk to people about how to be inclusive and equitable for all and create organizations and spaces for all, but specifically looking at the Muslim, Muslim-American, Muslim in the West experience, and also those of other marginalized religious identities in the West.
That is my personal lived experience. I do always, always start with and center that I absolutely do not represent all Muslims. Not at all. There are an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims around the world; that is an estimated 25% of the world’s population. No single one person could possibly know, even if they are a Muslim themselves, myself very much included… none of us as individuals can know everything about even our own group.
So please do make sure that you’re not taking what I’m saying, and saying, “Oh, all Muslims because Rahimeh.” No, no, no, no, no, no. But definitely wanting to share my own experience so that it can benefit others and also what I have heard from many other Muslims in my own community, online, in professional settings, and so on.
Larry Baker: Awesome, thank you so much for that quick introduction, Rahimeh. So what I really want to kick this session off with is I want you to share—because again, we’re given this phrase a little bit of a deeper context—so I want you to share your personal experience around that phrase and, how it’s been applied to you: “You’re not being a team player.”
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. The tricky thing with this kind of coding is that it is both explicitly used in the workplace and also implicitly used, so it’s not said, which makes it even more difficult to push back against. A lot of the times when you’re newer in your career—I know for myself as well, when I was newer in my career—it just like an ucky feeling of “Huh, I don’t really feel like I am being respected, but I can’t really put my finger on it.” Because sometimes they don’t actually come out and say, “You’re not being a team player” or “We need you to in essentially conform with the standards of professionalism.”
There are a lot of conversations in the DEI space around what is actually professionalism in the West. And a lot of the time that is norms where you are expected to be white, you’re expected to be a man, you’re expected to be cisgender, you’re expected to be Christian or Christian-passing, on and on… all these like dominant, privileged identities in the workplace, and anyone who falls outside of that is not professional or not a team player. So in many cases, Muslims… again, please, please, please keep in mind that Muslims are incredibly diverse in our ethnic background, our racial background. Actually, ISPU (the Institute on Social Policy and Understanding), which is a Muslim American nonprofit and think tank, did a study a couple of years ago and showed that Muslims in the United States are actually the most racially diverse religious group in the United States. A lot of people don’t know 30% of Muslims in the United States are Black or of African descent or African immigrants or part of the African diaspora.
So please keep in mind, not just ethnically, racially from all backgrounds, but also there are different sects of the religion. There are people who choose to be a certain level of practicing and less practicing, and so in all of these different ways of all the great diversity amongst Muslims, there is no one way of showing up as Muslim of acting Muslim. “Oh, they have a Muslim name” “oh, they acted Muslim,” “this person’s less Muslim.” On and on and on.
With that having been said, for Muslims who do practice more of the religion of Islam that kind of departs from mainstream non-Muslim American life, for instance, we’re gonna talk about not drinking alcohol or not shaking hands or making physical contact with someone from a different gender: a couple of other examples that can be very jarring for non-Muslims if this is the first time they’ve come across that kind of behavior, which I totally appreciate when you are coming across something new in from your experience in the past. I’m not here to shame anyone for being surprised. Not at all.
But the problem is when we come back to our phrase, “You’re not being a team player.” When it’s like… what really does it mean in this organization to be a team player? Is it all of these professional norms that really don’t mean anything when we really think about it, or is it how good someone is at their job, how much they really are dedicated to the quality of their work and doing it as what they were hired to do? And are we guilting people for actually being from diverse backgrounds and not from the dominant privileged identities or attempting to hide or erase their own identities in order to assimilate?
Larry Baker: Okay. So when you think about this phrase, you start to touch upon it with what you were saying, but I want you to just really be specific. How do you think that this particular phrase tends to connect to maybe even larger issues in society?
I mean, you touched on it a little bit, but I just want you to kind of put your twist on… so once this phrase is applied, here’s what it might have a greater connection to. So if you could give me some insight on how do you think it connects to larger societal issues?
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. So for Muslims in the West and honestly around the world… but especially in the West cuz I’m born and raised in the United States. I’m American, so that’s very much my own lived context, and I want to be very clear about what context I have expertise in. So having said that, the broader model of marginalization that Muslims face is called Islamophobia, which is the fear and bias against Muslims, Islam, or anyone who is thought to be Muslim, right?
So for instance, someone who is being discriminated against or god forbid attacked, which has happened. Deaths, murders have happened because someone was thought to be Muslim when they weren’t in fact Muslim, and that actually would for sure be considered Islamophobia. And it’s one thing completely, just as an aside, to critique a religion; every religion is deserving and must be critiqued by its own members and externally, that is a completely separate and valid point. But this fear of Muslims are taking over the world, or you know, Sharia law when you don’t even know what Sharia law really is. “Muslim women are all oppressed.” Not to say that Muslim women, just like other women in other groups, don’t face marginalization or oppression from the hands of other people. Not at all. But the fact that a whole religion and all these women who choose to practice Islam, who choose to be Muslim, who choose to wear hijab are all oppressed by default and on and on and on.
So with this overarching idea of Islamophobia coming into the workplace, this “you’re not a team player” is code for basically like legitimized, professional Islamophobia where a Muslim is acting against what is considered “professional norms,” whereas if that might mean a Muslim woman choosing to wear hijab or any Muslim of any gender choosing not to shake hands or hug or make physical contact in some other way with a member of a different gender.
I know ironically it’s actually been at other DEI-centered events that when… and I’m someone who also doesn’t shake hands with people from different genders, and I have a whole script of what I do to try and make it less awkward for people. Cuz again, I appreciate very much that like you are not expecting someone not shake your hand when you’re meeting them for the first time. It’s meant as a gesture of getting to know someone and starting a professional or some sort of relationship with them and trying to start off on a good foot. I appreciate the intention, so I do everything that I can, and I know a lot of Muslims who do the same thing—have this whole script of trying to make sure that the other person doesn’t feel like we hate them or we’re discriminating against them, or or or or.
But even then when I explain, “Hey, this is my religion. I don’t shake hands with men or with people of other genders, but it’s so nice to meet you,” and I go straight into whatever the conversation is to try and not make it something we spend time thinking about, they start stewing about and getting ideas about, “Does this person actually hate me?” Which is not at all the case.
Even then with all of that effort, it’s actually surprisingly when I’m at DEI-related events that I get the most raised eyebrows, the most “What? Oh, why? Why are you so different? Why are you so weird?” And again, this is like in a professional networking setting, but even in a job, if you are not following the expectations… which when you really think about it, what about shaking hands with someone or letting them hug you or letting them tap you on the shoulder or some other professionally-accepted—at least in the United States—form of physical contact, what about that inherently makes someone a team player or not, right? When they are doing their job very well, when the quality of their work is excellent, when they are attentive to their customers, their clients, their teammates, their manager, on and on and on.
So that’s one example with handshaking and just generally touches on Muslims as the permanent other, similar to Asian Americans. And there is a lot of overlap between Asian Americans in the West and Muslims because there are many Muslims who come from ethnicities that are from the Asian continent. I do wanna just take this opportunity to point out that not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim, the Middle East falling under the Asian continent. So just really wanting drive that home that I don’t want people walking away from this conversation thinking that “I thought all Muslims are Arab and Rahimeh confirmed that.”
No, no, no, no. That’s not what I’m saying. But there are a lot in India and Bangladesh and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iran and all these other places, so many other places that have so many Muslims and fall under the Asian continent. And so there’s a lot of overlap between Asian Americans and Muslims.
So having said that, there’s this similar thought between Asians and Muslims where they are the permanent other—that no matter how many years, how many generations, how much they have integrated into the United States or the American context or other Western countries as well that they are never like really citizens, that they are never really belonging here.
And I get that treatment all the time. Especially now that I am very vocal and do a lot of my education work on social media, which is honestly a method where I am trying to just get the information out in an accessible way because not everyone works at a company that can hire a DEI practitioner or consultant or trainer.
And that means that the information stays in very specific kind of… not classes, but just like there’s a certain financial burden that comes from hiring someone for a completely tailored engagement versus there are so many people who are really interested in this information.
So I will stop there. Thank you, Larry. I know I’m a talker.
Larry Baker: No, because you’re leading me into the workplace because I want to dig into that because you’re kind of touching up on some things that… We almost gave a definition of “a team player” because when I think of what the standard, traditional definition of a team player is, it’s basically somebody that is actively contributing to the group in order to complete a task or meet a goal or even manage a project.
So some of the things when we talked earlier, you talked about your experience with this: they don’t even relate to that topic. And what I mean specifically is you talked to me about a situation… drinking, right? Some type of event where drinking was involved. I want you to elaborate on those experiences and how that created this contradiction for you and your religion. So if you could talk about that a little bit.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the thing—what you just described as the meaning of a team player. I agree. If this is a job, if this is a professional setting, it should be about the work. Is someone doing their job as the job description stated and they signed a employment contract that stated these are the roles and the responsibilities that you have. “This is what we’re paying you, compensation for your time and expertise.” “Amazing, this person has been doing those things. They’ve been doing good quality work. They have been coming to meetings, they’re on time for things. Whatever the case may be.”
If things happen that they have to make changes, they have to call out sick. Okay? That’s completely expected in the human experience. People are human beings. People get sick. They have children who need to be taken care of, their elderly parents, whatever the case may be. The power goes out in their house, their car gets broken down, whatever. Like those are different aside things.
I agree that what you described should be really what is the definition of a team player. What ends up happening, as we were talking about this coded phrase, is that it adds on these like unspoken layers of things where if you try and push back then you have it used against you. Like, “Oh, well I feel like you’re not being a same player,” and you were like, “But I have been doing my work.” And I’ve seen so many testimonies online and in person and I’ve experienced it myself where I have had a manager or some part of my team come to me and say, ”Hey, I don’t really like X that you’re doing” or “This isn’t going well” or “Can you do this differently?” and I push back. And again, many other people have this experience, not just Muslims of course, but Muslims as well, saying “This was the project that I was given. Yes it was. Did I meet all the expectations? This expectation, this expectation? Yes, I did. Then what is the problem?”
And somehow it’s still just not good enough or they just don’t feel good about it, whatever the case may be. So it’s all these implicit, unspoken layers that are added on that people just use the phrase “team player” because it’s so ambiguous that they can then just criticize people for things that they personally are biased against, and in this case for Muslims like Islamophobic biases.
Remind me of the second part of your question. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re on mute.
Larry Baker: The situation around drinking and alcohol in different events.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. So I want to start with again stating that there are many Muslims on all different sides of the spectrum of this specific topic, just like all topics. There are Muslims who do. There are Muslims who go to bars or go to institutions where drinking is happening, and they have no problem with it as long as they themselves choose not to drink. There are Muslims who may go to professional settings through their job. Cuz a lot of positions, employers will have like happy hours or times after work where people are networking amongst their team with their manager, with higher ups, with people in leadership, where this is where promotions and recommendations for jobs later on… this is where the foundation for that is laid.
There are people when they go to grad school the same way, which a lot of it isn’t just necessarily about the degree, but it’s also about the networking with your cohort and how powerful that is. That’s a lot of the reason why people want to go to really prestigious grad schools because that is the caliber. Again, the thought behind it is that that’s the caliber of people going to those institutions, that you’re then networking with your cohort, with your professors and so on and so forth.
And so if all of those kinds of both in a job situation or professional networking settings outside of a job… if all of those are related to alcohol and you have a Muslim, in this case someone who is practicing the Islamic principle that alcohol is not allowed to consume… again, with the asterisks being that there are Muslims not just that do drink because they are not practicing, but also my understanding is that there are some Muslims who legitimately think that drinking alcohol is acceptable in Islam. And I’m not here at all to say that those people are not good Muslims or that they’re not Muslim or that they’re wrong.
But I’m trying to represent that the majority of Muslims—I do feel comfortable saying—would say that it is not allowed in Islam to consume alcohol and some would go so far as to say to enter into a space like a bar where alcohol is being consumed or an event where like it’s a big part of the event. I know some people who won’t even go to restaurants where there is a bar. I will go to a restaurant where there is alcohol like served, but I won’t go and sit at the bar area if they’re like, “Oh, you need to go order from this area.” So again, many Muslims on all different sides of the spectrum.
For the Muslims who don’t care about alcohol and are fine being around it or consume it themselves, then they’re not going to have this phrase used against them—“you’re not a team player”—because they go along with what the dominant culture is. This is in no way meant to judge them. For those Muslims who do step aside from what is the dominant culture norm—which is to either be very open and free with consuming alcohol or they themselves will attend events where there is alcohol—for those of us who do not do those things, I know for myself, I have had some very sticky situations.
One event in particular I’m thinking about… so this was a job where I had a lot of coworkers where we were very close, and we had a lot of great rapport. And so one of our team members in particular who was very beloved by the whole team—and rightly so, she was amazing—she’s having a birthday, and so we all decided to take her out to lunch on our lunch break. And there was a restaurant that a lot of people liked very nearby, like we could have walked there it was so close. And I thought for myself, especially since I was like younger in my career, “Well it’s lunchtime. We’re only on our one-hour break.” A lot of people actually did end up driving and not walking, even though we could have walked be. “So people are driving, it’s lunchtime, we’re going back to work from work. I think I’m safe. I don’t need to think about this.”
And so we get there. Actually, someone did drive me… don’t judge me for not walking, but I actually did drive with someone as a passenger. Then when we got there, everyone ordered wine. Like everyone. And I felt so uncomfortable and at the same time, this was against my values that I would’ve respectfully passed and wished her happy birthday, gotten her a gift, given her a hug, whatever the case may be if I had known this. Now that I was there, I was fighting in my mind about, “Do I say anything? How can I say something? How can set some sort of boundaries in this completely awkward situation where literally everyone around me, all my coworkers, are drinking, and I’m incredibly uncomfortable, and I really wish someone had told me that.”
And also, this is someone’s birthday. I don’t wanna make it about myself by making a scene or anything like that; we’re there to celebrate her. And so it was a very awkward situation. Thankfully because I had been at this organization for a while, I had rapport built with my coworkers that even though they weren’t aware of this part of Islam… when I was younger in my career also, I very much had to I unlearn a lot of internalized Islamophobia where I would like tamp down on my own values and ideas about boundary-setting. Because of being Muslim, I was figuring that I bothered people. So anyway, I had people who went with it and hopefully I didn’t ruin this person’s birthday.
But I’ve had many instances as well in professional networking settings where either I have completely opted out when going to a dinner with people at catered roundtables and seating charts where I had asked ahead of time to be given a table where alcohol wasn’t being consumed, even though everyone else was drinking on other tables. And they gave me this teeny tiny little appetizer table where you stand. It was so tiny. And then thankfully one person, one of the organizers, sat with me so I wouldn’t sit by myself, but it was just so awkward and I’m literally smiling through it like “This is awesome.” I don’t want you to see how awkward I am and like how humiliating it is.
Larry Baker: But Rahimeh, you’re really touching upon another line of thought that I want you to dig into, is some advice, right? What type of advice would you give to people that might be targeted by this phrase? Or if you are in a room and you hear someone being targeted by this phrase, what kind of advice would you give to those two parties?
Rahimeh Ramezany: So for the people who are targeted by this kind of language—this coded phrase where the phrase itself might not be objectionable, but then there’s all this like unspoken stuff behind it, which again is why it’s so difficult to like confront it. For those of us who experience being on the receiving end of that, first and foremost, I want to appreciate and uplift the fact that you are probably in a setting where this is your employment, where you are making an income to feed yourselves, to feed your family, to pay your rent or your mortgage. Right now, the economy is not in the best shape, and I personally don’t think that there is any shame in prioritizing the stability of one’s life, their food, their housing—in the United States—their healthcare, their retirement… prioritizing that and that safety instead of always living 120% your values. And I know that that’s very difficult. I know for me it is very difficult to know that I’m compromising on my values to survive. However, I just wanna say that I personally would say to not beat yourself up too much about that you’re doing the absolute best you can. And that’s all anyone can do.
And when there is an opportunity to come to your manager or come to a coworker who could be an ally for you. Because especially if this person has a more privileged identity in this area, they trust you, you trust them: they’ve shown that they are trustworthy and they can advocate for you, and you’ve given them your permission to advocate and all of that, then that is a great method that you can do. If there’s a way to give anonymous feedback if you don’t feel like there’s that psychological safety there. Maybe there are coworkers of similar identities to you who you feel might have experienced similar problematic feedback—reaching out to them and doing what you can to see what you can do collectively because there are absolutely power in numbers. So trying to be innovative with how you approach things. The foundation that I personally hold true is that your employment, how you are surviving this world, I would never, ever, ever want to give any advice that could jeopardize someone’s livelihood.
So having said that, for people who are managers, who are in leadership, anyone in a position even if they’re not in leadership who are wanting to be allies to those with different marginalized identities—whether they are Muslim or some other marginalized identity—try and stay open to feedback. That feedback is a gift on how to improve, and there has been a lot of conversation for many, many years around growth mindset. So if that is something that we generally understand in the professional world about being open to growing and that you are not a failure as a human being because you don’t know all the things, then you can apply that to DEI values where you are not having this perfectionistic perspective of “I know all the things. I am never going to be in the wrong because I always make right decisions.” Instead, shifting towards a more flexible growth mindset perspective of when someone comes to me and says, “Hey, this is how you can be more inclusive of me. This is accommodations that I need to have a more equitable experience”—and equity within DEI is about removing barriers to access—allowing someone with who they are because we appreciate, with the diversity element, that human beings are incredibly diverse. Again, not just Muslims. Human beings are incredibly diverse, and that’s actually an amazing, beautiful thing about the human experience.
Larry Baker: Yeah, agree. Agree.
Rahimeh Ramezany: You have the business case down for DEI where it’s more innovative for your company and on and on. So you have these diverse people in your organization making sure that you’re taking their feedback so that you can build that psychological safety where they trust you. They are going to be more innovative, they are gonna be more committed to their jobs. They’re going to do so much more for your organization because they know that you have their back.
And again, going back to the original focus of today’s conversation—“you’re not being a team player”— really getting clear on what exactly does it mean to be a team player in your organization. And does that mean that you were requiring people, as an example, to consume alcohol to be a team player on your organization? And there’s so many people, just as one last point, that don’t consume alcohol, not just for religious reasons, not just Muslims.
Larry Baker: Exactly.
Rahimeh Ramezany: There’s so many other people for very, very legitimate reasons, which we can go into in another time. But just keep that in mind: what are you really saying when you want someone to be a team player? And is that actually related to their role?
Larry Baker: Yeah, and thank you so much for that Rahimeh, because that kind of ties into some of the things that I was thinking about… that definition of team player, it also has to be based upon intersectionality of the different values that you have within your team, right? So I like that as advice for an ally, but also I want them to be aware of their own bias in regards to how they define team player.
You also touched upon a great point in regards to when you are given feedback: don’t necessarily equate that to failure. Because if you are an individual that is looking to grow, looking to improve, that feedback is that mechanism to help you get there. So I absolutely appreciate you touching on all those points.
But I just wanted to thank you so much, Rahimeh, for joining me on this incredibly important topic, and I think that you shared your experiences with your religion in that beautifully because again, we wanna always make sure we’re being intersectional in our approach.
But before we go, I’m gonna give you a little space to promote your personal and professional endeavors with us. So how can our listeners get in touch with Rahimeh? Tell us how to get in touch with you.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you, Larry. I appreciate it, and thank you so much for this conversation. I very much hope for anyone listening that this has been helpful, educational to you in some way.
If you are interested in getting in touch with me—as I mentioned a little earlier in the conversation—I am active on social media as of course marketing my business but also genuinely offering education pieces for people who don’t have the opportunity necessarily to have organizations that they work at come in and bring a completely customized, tailored training or engagement to their team. So if you are interested in following and learning around these topics around diversity, equity, and inclusion, around intercultural communication—especially as it relates to Muslims in the West or those of different marginalized religious identities in the West—I really highly recommend checking me out.
I’m very active on LinkedIn, which for some people they’re active on LinkedIn, and the people who aren’t active on LinkedIn are just like, “What? Who’s on LinkedIn? That’s just a resume site.” So that depends on, you know, your own usage. But I’m also active on Instagram, YouTube, and on TikTok, so you can check me out there if you have my name with this episode. All of my accounts are under my full name, Rahimeh Ramezany. I’m sorry, yes—you will have to spell my name correctly.
But you can refer to there if any organizations are interested in actually bringing an actual customized, fully tailored engagement, which that is a big point of pride for me in my work is that I don’t just copy and paste trainings from one org to another; I really get to know the organization, their context, what are their struggles, what are their questions, and tailor the content specifically to them.
If you are interested in that sort of engagement or something similar that you might have in mind that you want to propose, you ca reach out to email@example.com: no dots, no spaces, no, dashes or anything. Again, you will—I’m sorry—have to spell my name correctly, but you can reach out to me there. I have my contact form and there are more details around my work. So I recommend checking me out there.
Larry Baker: Fantastic. Thank you so much again, Rahimeh, and this has been such a great conversation.
But understand that it doesn’t stop here, and we are really hoping that you take what you learn and you share it: share it with your friends, share it with your coworkers. And if you actually want to partner in having these conversations in your own workplace, then let us know. You can contact LCW at languageandculture.com. So once again, this has been Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. Thank you.
Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded.
And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.