Thursday, October 02, 2008

Blaxplanation Workplace Chronicles: Forming and Formalizing Alliances

In Favor of Black Upliftment (image by Karen Y. Buster)

For those of us who are diminished daily by the slings and arrows of the predominately white workplace, I’ve decided to begin documenting some of my job-related experiences. Like many of you, I could easily dedicate an entirely new blog to the five-day-a-week discriminatory spectacle to which I’m privy. Despite the well documented and oft-repeated progress we’ve made, many of us still have to sit idly by and watch whites hurdle effortlessly over obstacles that employers place in our paths to block our ascension. In any event, I’ll begin the inaugural “Blaxplanation Workplace Chronicles” by sharing the All Too True experiences of “Marcus,” a good, young brother with whom I work.

Marcus was viewed as an ambitious, talented “up and comer” within the walls of the healthcare organization for which I toil. Marcus was brought on board by one of the company’s Senior Vice Presidents (he’d had a position created for him, in fact) and soon won everyone over with his intelligence, charm, professionalism and eagerness to assist others with their projects. He’d been viewed so favorably, in fact, that his organizational benefactor, under pressure from workers who wondered aloud why there were so few African-Americans in management, saw fit to publicly hand-select him to become one of the darker faces of the organization. Seemingly, Marcus was being primed to eventually assume a leadership role in the company.

Alas, it was not to be. Despite Marcus’ desire to take on more responsibility, his supervisor repeatedly displayed a dogged unwillingness to develop him. Marcus’ fall from grace began shortly after he received an informal performance review from his supervisor in which he was generally lauded, but also accused of not being “engaged.” The plan was for Marcus to have only a short stint in his current position and then move to another part of the organization. Despite this, Marcus’ supervisor wanted him to plug in. Marcus, not yet familiar with BossSpeak – the ways in which a supervisor, in a seemingly non-threatening manner, informs an employee that he or she needs to correct something immediately, OR ELSE – simply viewed her comments as benign, constructive criticism. Upon hearing of this, I advised Marcus to fake it – send his boss work-related emails, in the evenings, from home and work the occasional Saturday. Although he was considerate enough to hear me out, and even willing to employ some of my strategies, he was also a straightforward person who was convinced that his work should speak for itself, and he should be above resorting to the kind of trickery that I’d suggested.

Shortly after his review, his manager, now inexplicably convinced that Marcus was unresponsive to her criticism, began to orchestrate his removal. Suddenly, she began to openly express fears that his work was suffering. Out of nowhere came concerns that his projects weren’t up to snuff. Then came the day when Marcus was called into her office only to find his manager and her supervisor, a director, waiting for him. Marcus was being written up - a write up that included such phrases as, “Perhaps I [the supervisor] overestimated your analytical ability.” Literally within a six week period, Marcus went from being the Golden Boy to the Whipping Boy in an organization that once valued him.

And where was his potential savior? Marcus’ SVP champion, the one who had brought him on board, promised to mentor him, and paraded him in front of the organization proved to be unwilling to help him. He allowed Marcus to flounder, displaying unusual anemia for someone in his lofty position. To be fair, this SVP has his own issues. He has his hands full maintaining the status quo. Despite enduring calls to increase diversity in management from all across the organization, he sends out defiant notices that no will be considered for a promotion based on his or her race (a bizarre and ignorant misinterpretation of equal opportunity employment law). As it turns out, he is one of those clueless whites who mistakes individual tokenism for widespread diversity (more on this situation in a later post).

Could Marcus have helped his situation? Certainly. His propensity for forthrightness not withstanding, he could have taken measures to protect himself, and project an image of company connectivity, even if he found it tedious and unnecessary. He also could have been more wary. Marcus belongs to a generation of young African-Americans who have naively bought into the idea that whites are of no danger to them. These young people, having been reared in a post-Civil Rights world in which they’ve always shared classrooms with whites, are not equipped with the self-protective distrust of white intentions that was necessary for their fore bearers’ survival. But, despite this, unfortunately for him, the die had been cast. He had been already been judged. Hence, Marcus was thrown to the wolves based on a single white manager’s perception of him.

Now to my point: Shortly after being hired, I reached out to Marcus on both the social (regularly scheduled lunches and frequent conversations) and professional level. To the best of my ability, I’ve also provided some degree of counseling/advice/commiseration to the brother. Up until now, this has been done in an informal manner. On many occasions, I’ll simply drop by Marcus’ cube and say, “Let’s walk and talk for a minute,” to let him know about things I’d been hearing, or to check on his status. These experiences have brought me to the conclusion that our people need to develop formal networks for dealing with workplace frustrations. I regret that Marcus and I weren’t a part of a larger effort to help black men and women navigate the treacherous waters of the workplace. Imagine a scenario in which Marcus, when confronted by the artifice of his supervisor, could immediately go to a group of seasoned brothers who could give him much better direction than I. I don’t want to give the impression that this experience has permanently harmed Marcus, far from it. I’ve told him honestly that I believe he has what it takes to run an organization like the one we work for, and with greater fairness and efficiency. I still believe this. But I can also easily envision someone being scarred by an experience like this. Not everyone has his determination.

There’s also one final thing to keep in mind: like it or not, to some extent, we’re all in Marcus’ shoes. Despite the fact that some of us are educated, experienced and older, all that separates many us from having our corporate dreams deferred is the whim of a white employer who never really had much use for us anyway.

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At 3:24 PM , Blogger Breez said...

it is indeed unfortunate, but kudos to you for reaching out. there is a need for us to be more willing to inform those who come after us, regardless of what it is that we do.

ps - you've got email...or at least you will in a minute.

At 11:33 AM , Blogger bint alshamsa said...

Dang, I guess it never ends. *sigh*

Yeah, I've met a few of our folks who've bought into the notion that this is a "post-racial" society only to get smacked backed to reality by the educational system/work force. I don't care what happens in my lifetime. You can't convince me that people don't see a black woman when I walk in the room.

At 3:53 PM , Blogger Clifton said...

I want to make a comment about the larger network to help black men and women navigate the workplace. I have been in Marcus's shoes and I have tried to help other people in the same situation. The one thing that happens is when they get you behind those close doors and tell you that they have plans for you, there is a hidden message in there that suggests it would be a good idea not to involve yourself with other people in the office that may hinder your progress. It makes you paranoid so when you go the brother or sister to try and give them some small advice it's difficult to accept. After all, how could you possibly know more than the guy with the big office who's about to make their dreams come through? That's why we have to get more of us in the big office.

At 4:00 PM , Blogger decade number three said...

That is most unfortunate. Hopefully he will be able to bounce back relatively quickly and with a fairly unscathed but healthy outlook on himself. I also hope that he's learned a little bit. That white distrust that we have definitley comes with experience for this generation.

I'm doing ok. Trying to maintain patience and calm.

At 12:53 PM , Blogger Mandingo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:55 PM , Blogger Mandingo said...

You hit the nail on the head with this one. This younger generation has never had to actually ‘face’ real discrimination. It’s been present, but masked for them, so many of them haven’t noticed it. I was once in a role where a white female manager got me into a position that I ‘wasn’t supposed to have’ and I was manager over a distribution center for a retail computer company I worked for; responsible for $50 million inventory daily. I commenced to try and hire some others who looked like me to work around me. One guy sent me his resume and I had him hired [on paper] before the interview. However, he didn’t present himself professionally on interview and I couldn’t hire him. I offered him some advice and was labeled by him an uncle tom because I bowed to the system in which we matriculate. I believe a network of this nature is necessary and would definitely be beneficial not only to the Marcus’, but to those seasoned dark faces as well; while they learn how to navigate the trail, we learn how to better help them do so.

At 2:26 PM , Blogger BLESSD1 said...

Hopefully the brother learned a bit in this debacle, and will arm himself with a greater sense of caution when it comes to those around him in the workplace.


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