I work for RTX, previously known as Raytheon Technologies, a large aerospace and defense company. I haven’t yet run into another colleague who identifies as a business anthropologist, but I mention that detail about myself regularly as it explains the topics I am passionate about and the areas in which I can make a contribution. These include organizational culture and change, employee experience, and effective communication.

As a PhD, I worked in consulting for nearly a decade and now I am employed full-time for a Fortune 100 company in the domain of strategic change integration. During a recent conversation with a post-doc anthropologist preparing to job search, I answered the question that became the title of this blog, how do I use my anthropology degree in the workplace?

I am sharing here some points from this conversation. I emphasized that many things that come naturally to anthropologists based on our training are useful and appreciated in the workplace. For example, I have leveraged the anthropological concept of cultural relativism in the workplace while performing “stakeholder needs assessments.”

Our training encourages and promotes understanding the beliefs and behaviors of others embedded in a unique cultural perspective different from our own. This capability is very useful at work. In large multidisciplinary organizations, each function—manufacturing, supply chain, human resources, legal, cyber, communications, finance, and the list goes on—has an associated set of functionally specific beliefs, priorities, and behaviors. The ability to suspend functional beliefs while seeking to understand the world view and perspective of a different group aids in developing understanding as well as empathy. A sense of understanding and empathy become a strong base from which to cultivate areas for collaboration and partnership. Articulating the embedded perspectives of others and balancing the needs and opinions in a comprehensive manner bring a valuable contribution to any workplace.

Second, the anthropological practice of ethnography I have leveraged in the workplace to perform effective storytelling and employee experience research.

Anthropologists produce deeply detailed, first-hand ethnographies that describe the patterns of behavior and cultural beliefs, norms, and values of groups. The level of detail makes for thorough accounts that help convey nuance. In my work, using an ethnographic lens to document patterns and capture cultural descriptions has contributed to the ability to tell stories of distinct employee groups. These highly specific “stories” help communicate the uniqueness of individual groups and the physical contexts of their work. In consulting, I often performed cultural assessments. When I debriefed leadership, I was honored to relay details that I collected via participant observation. These details were a reminder of concerns coming from employees’ experience and could include particulars about the hot or cold temperatures of the working conditions or the minutes and miles away of restrooms or cafeterias. I collected these by shadowing participants, thus enabling authentic full descriptions of people, places, and processes. The richness of first-hand experience can communicate taken-for-granted and poorly understood specifics. The ethnographic lens and collection of observational data also capture otherwise missed practices, such as small rituals or artifacts of material culture (keepsakes, art, modifications of the workspace) that work teams share and imbue with cultural significance.

No matter the functional group, such as manufacturing, quality, C-suite [company leadership], that sponsored the consulting work I performed, or which group my current role encompasses—I utilize a holistic view. This “non-denominational” approach enables collaboration, partnership, and learning more effectively than if my orientation were more influenced by a functional slant. The ability to suspend judgement while understanding why teams are performing work in a specific manner and the values, beliefs, perspectives, and norms around that work, enables insight that a large, complex organization would otherwise miss.

Reflecting on the role I may assume in projects or meetings, I am often a mediator, translator, and advocate. I believe I am able to listen for understanding versus judgement and I am able to play back and repeat perspectives grounded in meaning and significance to different parties. If anthropology is the study of humanity—then anthropologists offer something to any workplace that relies on humans to communicate, design, and build products whether they are vehicles, aircraft carriers, or software applications—all products I have supported as an anthropologist.

About the Author: Emily Altimare

Emily Altimare
Emily Altimare is a practicing anthropologist who has worked as a consultant and a full-time employee in diverse industries that include custom vehicle manufacturing, shipbuilding, and aerospace and defense. Her areas of specialization include organizational culture, change processes, lean manufacturing and employee experience. She is passionate about data-driven solutions and leveraging cross-functional teams.