Corporate 100
The Trouble With “Tribe”
When workplace culture clashes with cultural appropriation
By J. Maija Doggett

xcited as my former colleagues were for my new adventure when I changed jobs in 2023, they were also sad to see me go. At twenty-plus years of service, I had the longest tenure of all employees in the human resources department. Many of my coworkers expressed how much they were going to miss my “tribal” knowledge of the firm’s HR practices.

It wasn’t a tribal entity that I worked for. I’m not of American Indian or Alaska Native descent, and I don’t belong to any of the 574 tribes recognized by the US government. When my coworkers referred to my “tribal” knowledge, what they meant was my institutional knowledge of the firm’s history, employee policy development, and corporate culture, which many of my teammates found to be useful in doing their own jobs. They were using “tribal” in the context of referring to our workplace as our tribe.

While “tribe” and “tribal” are used in non-tribal workplaces with less fervor than they once were, some organizations still use the word “tribe” in employee communications, recruitment materials, and marketing campaigns. A marketing department might deliver a “Your vibe attracts your tribe” pep talk to encourage networking with potential clients, or the lead recruiter may post a “Find your tribe” campaign on social media. Or maybe team meetings are informally called “tribe gatherings” as a way of evoking a sense of camaraderie and community that is conducive to enhancing teamwork. Leaders of organizations that continue to use “tribe” and “tribal” in these contexts need to understand why this practice should stop.

Used with Good Intentions
Various online explainers and definers use different words to describe “tribe,” but they all generally describe a group of people with shared interests who have a recognized leader. To non-Indigenous people, “tribe” has a way of evoking an image of teamwork, camaraderie, community, and engagement that is the epitome of the way business leaders want their employee teams to work together.

Use of “tribe” and “tribal” in the non-tribal workplace was never meant to be derogatory. On the contrary, it was meant to be positive, and influencers are still touting the benefits of “tribe.”

While there is no one-to-one replacement for “tribe” for every context, one way to start is by removing the word and exploring alternative vocabulary.
An article by business influencer Deborah Wilson on LinkedIn titled “How Do I Find My Work Tribe?” references the feeling of belonging that we all desire at work. Wilson’s article points out that “being in an environment where you can genuinely thrive involves finding and working with your tribe. Small companies can be a tribe, while larger organisations typically comprise tribes within a bigger tribe.”

Wilson’s usage suggests that one benefit of “tribal” affiliation is that you can thrive in your workplace and in your career.

A website article by public relations firm Startr Co. titled “Company Culture: How You Know You Found Your Tribe” recommends vetting the company culture of your prospective employer before accepting an offer. Using the terms “company culture” and “work tribe” interchangeably, the article characterizes your “work tribe” as the work environment that meets your professional goals and makes you feel like part of a team, which are both essential aspects of achieving career fulfillment.

In other words, according to relationship coach Meg Tuohey in her article “Finding Your Tribe”: “…when you find your people, you really are finding a space in the world that you belong to. And the thing about humans is that you want to belong. You also want to be noticed and witnessed… When you’ve got your tribe, you’ve got all three things. Belonging, Being Noticed, and Being Witnessed.”

“Tribe” is used to describe the feelings of belonging and thriving in the workplace that employees are seeking and that employers seek to offer. What could be wrong with that?

In 2020, Yeti Cycles found out.

Somebody Else’s Tribe
Yeti Cycles is a high-end mountain bike manufacturer based in Golden, Colorado. Yeti Cycles had used “tribe” for decades to describe its community of cyclists as the Yeti Tribe. The company held events called Yeti Tribe Gatherings.

In July of 2020, more than 1,000 people signed the #NotYourTribe petition on requesting that Yeti Cycles end its use of “tribe” in all marketing communications. The petition states: “… when non-Indigenous people use the term ‘Tribe’ to describe a group of people with a common interest, it belittles the history, experience, and unique status of the Tribal Nations in the United States and contributes to the exotification, cultural appropriation, and cultural erasure of tribal nations.”

I don’t belong to any of the 574 tribes recognized by the US government. When my coworkers referred to my “tribal” knowledge, what they meant was my institutional knowledge of the firm’s history, employee policy development, and corporate culture.
Petitioners argued that Yeti’s use of “tribe” is derogatory and cultural appropriation.

The website agrees, calling tribes “significant cultural and political groups for Indigenous People.” Furthermore, the term has legal force, with the US Constitution empowering Congress to regulate commerce “with the Indian Tribes.”, a youth resources website by the nonprofit Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, goes on to say, “Federally recognized Tribes are recognized as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., Tribal sovereignty) and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States… For Indigenous people, tribal identity is important. So when non-Native people say ‘Find your tribe’ or ‘tribe’ to describe groups of shared interest, it is offensive because it erases the significance of Tribal sovereignty, identity, and people.”

The strong association between “tribe” and a historically marginalized group is one reason for caution when using the word. Another reason, sadly, is because of how that group became associated with “tribe” in the first place.

Blame Latin
Wilson’s article quotes Google’s definition of “tribe”, which says “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” She cites this to support her use of the phrase “work tribe.” However, this definition ignores the history of the word. traces “tribe” to the Latin “tribus,” meaning “one of the three political/ethnic divisions of the original Roman state.” During the colonial expansion era of the 16th century, the word acquired the broader connotation of “a division of a barbarous race of people, usually distinguishable in some way from their congeners, united into a community under a recognized head or chief.” Essentially, Western Europeans used “tribe” to describe groups or families of indigenous people whom they judged to be primitive.

David Sneath of the University of Cambridge in his article “Tribe” in the Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology, states: “The notion of the tribe took on a very particular role in the era of colonial expansion. It became the social unit—and characteristic life-organising social form—of peoples considered more primitive than the Euroamerican colonists… Tribe became the standard term for the political groups of those thought of as barbarians, both in colonial encounters and in historical accounts of antiquity.”

Seven days after the #NotYourTribe petition began, Yeti Cycles readily admitted its mistake and ceased using the word “tribe.”

That wasn’t the end, of course. Critics immediately accused Yeti Cycles of caving to cancel culture. One outraged commenter quipped that maybe people shouldn’t say “salsa” anymore, implying the word is racist.

Admittedly, any word can become offensive if it is used with the intent to offend; however, “salsa” doesn’t have the same negative connotations contained in the etymology of “tribe.” There hasn’t (yet) been a movement by members of the Latino community claiming that “salsa” is an offensive word. The flippant analogy seems to demonstrate a lack of empathy for people who are legitimately offended by the inappropriate use of “tribe.”

In-Group Bias
If the cultural appropriation and derogatory history of “tribe” aren’t enough to convince non-Indigenous people to stop using it in a workplace context, consider that tribalism already conveys a certain negative connotation. In a workplace culture, it implies compartmentalization and division. In particular, the “similar-to-me” or “like-me” bias can appear in project teams, who is recruited and hired, who is given new responsibilities, or who is provided with training and advancement opportunities. In-group favoritism is a well-known pattern of human thought: we tend to more highly value others we think are like us, and we judge them based on real or perceived similarities that are not relevant to work performance.

It’s great to have friends at work, but ultimately employees are hired for their knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitude. Whether they run on the same trails, have kids the same age, or appreciate the same movie or TV references—those are not the reasons colleagues are brought together for a job.

Tribalism and associated biases create an atmosphere of “it’s who you know, not what you know,” which poisons a culture of career growth and advancement. If left unchecked, the “like-me” bias can lead to processes, policies, and procedures that favor the “in group,” driving away skilled talent that doesn’t fit. The resulting lack of diversity effectively kills innovation and throttles revenue. In this way, tribalism at work is bad for business.

Vocabulary Suggestions
In its response to the #NotYourTribe petition, Yeti Cycles said, “We have walked away from a word, but the soul of our community remains intact. We ask you all to join us in embracing this change.”

Trying to do so, one commenter said, “I’ve done a little reading and can see how it [tribe] could be conveyed negatively. Oddly I think I have exclusively used it in the way Yeti has to describe a collective of likeminded folk, always in a positive manner… Sounds like I might need to find a new shorthand to describe the same sentiment. Suggestions?”

While there is no one-to-one replacement for “tribe” for every context, one way to start is by removing the word and exploring alternative vocabulary.

Instead of “tribe,” a workplace unit could go by many other names, starting with, well, “unit.” Or “community.”

Group. Team. Crew. Crowd. Bunch. People. Nation. Society.

Find your troupe. Gather your flock. Here’s a cool one: squad. It has a military connotation, deriving from a square formation (same as “cadre”), but the Cambridge Dictionary definition fits perfectly: “a small group of people trained to work together.”

Fair warning, though: “tribe” isn’t the first derogatory, inflammatory, or offensive word to hit the workplace, and it won’t be the last. If a member or members of your squad, circle, or coterie express discomfort over a word you’ve chosen, look into why they feel that way. Better yet, vet any jargon used in marketing or employee communications. The group, combo, or posse is stronger when everyone feels included.