Black in the Workplace: The Hidden Pressure to be Twice as Good for the Same Recognition
by Justin Tyler
As an African-American child growing up in New Jersey, my mother and stepfather always took the time to enlighten me about what it meant to be “Black in America.” As a product and victim of the “Divided States of America” in the 1960s, it was only right and understandable for my parents to sharpen my sense of awareness around the undercurrent of racism and discrimination that I would undoubtedly experience as a developing young Black man. “Awareness” is the key word from the previous sentence because I was still raised to be excellent as an academic standout, comfortable with people not like me and displaying superb interpersonal skills to open up doors to learning and opportunity. Yet, that awareness taught me that despite the scholar-athlete credentials and a strong cache of positive reputation, I always felt the hidden pressure to be twice as good to receive my comeuppance.
To be honest, I always initially felt that my parents were being too jaded about their experiences growing up in pre- and post-Civil Rights eras. Both were born and raised in the South for some time with parents, aunts, uncles, older cousins and grandparents that unfortunately had too many stories to tell about not getting a fair shake in society and at the workplace. Indeed, they went through perilous, risky and unjust times that undeniably shaped the way that they raised me and my brother. I couldn’t ignore the truth hidden in plain sight, but I also had to see for myself to form my own opinions and roadmap over these obstacles.
As a person, the first time that I noticed this hidden pressure was in preparatory school. Being one of the few Black students at such a prestigious school, I felt honored and validated that my hard work led to this experience. However, on the other hand, I was also shocked to my senses to know that several prominent, non-Black students initially thought I was admitted due to my athletic ability and not my academic merit. Maybe my skin color did it. Perhaps, it was the way that I talked. Or maybe it was my swag. For some, it did not threaten; for others, I did not fit their preconceived narrative.
As a professional, I have witnessed and spoken to countless Black people who were denied internal promotions for either another internal or external candidate who just didn’t measure up on paper. For example, I have heard and overheard hiring managers say that a highly-performing Black male/female candidate was “too disruptive,” “too opinionated” and “just did not fit the culture” of what they need as an executive. To this day, that organization is still devoid of Black leadership. I have seen an exceptional Black female co-worker ask for help on the job because she was overwhelmed with her caseload. She eventually quit because the company refused to help… only for the same company to hire a non-Black employee and provide the same help that was previously denied to the exceptional, high-performing, culturally-fit and but-I-guess-too-disruptive Black employee.
Even in my own trials of being Black in the workplace, I, like others, have previously held some self-doubt about my knowledge, skills and abilities. Do I have what it takes to be what they want? Why do I feel like I have to be different here? Why am I not good enough for you… when I am more than good enough for myself?
Yeah, these feelings are regular and heavy; the tax of being Black in the workplace results in a sense of being on a shorter professional leash than others. Even if we have achieved high value and unbridled success at an organization or within an industry, an electric zap finds a way to shock us regularly to convey a menu of universal Black warnings like, “do more,” “you haven’t arrived yet,” “you are disposable” and “other people play by different rules than you.” These thoughts can be real. These thoughts could also be an illusion. Better yet, these subconscious clouds that hover over our career often feel like an allusion to our expendability — forever replaying in the back of our minds.
Without further adieu, let’s take a deeper look at the hidden pressures of being Black in the workplace.
“It’s OK to be Black, but not Black Black”
Sometimes, diversity and inclusion seem like lip service to a Black employee depending on how well the organization plans, executes, monitors and maintains real change from the top-down. There is this silent expectation for us to be in agreement and lockstep with corporate goals and programming. This form of groupthink is definitely expected and encouraged as the norms, corporate beliefs and nuances of the office that must be exhibited. There is a thin line between individuality and organizational sentiment in Corporate America, especially when it comes to race. In fact, according to Adia Harvey Wingfield, “Carbado and Gulati also note that minority professionals tread cautiously to avoid upsetting the majority group’s sensibilities. Put simply, they can be visibly black, but don’t want to be perceived as stereotypically black.” Blacks are often hesitant in doing things that would be deemed “too Black” to their management and their counterparts. These things include, but are not limited to, wearing dreadlocks, voicing an opinion, to have passion mistaken for anger or talking in any tone that resembles urban vernacular. However, with the advent of technologies, YouTube and other platforms, more Blacks are feeling liberated to leverage their talent to create their own opportunities. Additionally, they will research and work for more organizations that truly value diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in their ethos and actions.
“We are Not a Monolith. We are More Than a Stereotype”
In 2020, I have noticed that Blacks are still treated as a monolith and stereotype rather than the multi-faceted group of people that we really are. A glimpse at the 2020 election alone can simply articulate the unspoken — that Black people in America today are a truly heterogeneous collection of people where their diversity of experiences embrace what a single individual thinks, believes, actions and values. Despite this, in the workplace, racial and cultural backgrounds and perceptions oftentimes fuel the stereotypes that label Black people as one instead of distinctly carved and varied pieces that collectively make up… one. Therefore, it is difficult to surpass this level of thinking and uncertainty in a non-diversified organization where non-Black hiring managers, influencers and decision-makers predominately hold the key to being selected for a position, recruited to contribute on key projects or handpicked for a promotion.
“It’s That Same Ol’ Song…”
We see, read and hear it every year.
That aforementioned lip service and empty-messaged DE&I memos truly hurt when Black people see the obvious elephant in the room that either others don’t see or simply choose to ignore. In this particular context, the examples of the proverbial elephant in the room can vary, but they generally come in the form of a singular Black face in the boardroom. They generally come in the form of new hires not in the same hue. They generally come in the form of flawed recruitment pipelines that do not address a talent pool of future faces and the current problems that are playing itself out in society (that eventually lead to the workplace). They generally come in the form of an inability for Black employees to find Black leadership that can coach, mentor and assist in the precarious path up the company ladder. They generally come in the form of much less commitment and doggedness from leadership to reach DE&I goals in comparison to their uncompromising trailblazing to measure performance and revenue-driven corporate goals against key performance indicators (KPIs). NEWSFLASH: The exodus of Black talent from Corporate America is disrupting these very goals and an organization’s ability to reach and sustain competitive advantage.
“You Ain’t Got the Answers, Jus!”
Sure, Kanye — I don’t have all the answers like Sway. However, what I can tell you is that solutions are birthed through ideas. Thus, I have some insight to help Corporate America understand the burden of Black performance.
- Don’t expect diversity modules and racial sensitivity training to be the solution to the problem. These activities can be a positive step in the right direction, but this alone is not the solution.
- Put it all on the table. Listen to all of your employees and embrace feedback, especially from your Black workforce. Regardless of how positive or negative the criticism, these voices need to be heard and felt. By listening, your eyes and ears will be open more to what has been shared.
- No need to pity yourself. America’s history and foundation has always been shrouded on profiting from Black labor and culture, racial injustice, prejudice and inequality. Nearly 60 years since “Civil Rights America,” we all have work to do to realize its full vision, but companies have an obligation to also help address social justice issues through genuine equal opportunity access to leadership and executive roles.
- Cultivate a DE&I culture that addresses the front-end and back-end for total support. Companies can ensure their talent acquisition team partners with HBCUs and PWIs which have talent pools and programs that actively support Black employment initiatives and mentorship opportunities. Recruitment pipelines should be constructed to connect, recruit, select, develop and promote Black talent to create a future of a truly diversified executive team.
- Base more decisions on performance and merit… and less on perception. Strip the preconceived notions of a person based on their name, hair, city, heritage, race, clothes, language and behavior, to name a few. Instead, see the person through their contributions, performance, results and merit while providing the space for conversation, employee exposure, mentorship, coaching and access to executive leadership and vertical ascendancy.
- Embrace the change that you are currently witnessing domestically and internationally. Say less.
Social reform is largely needed in Corporate America. Black people, along with others, are aggressively voicing their opinions and energy toward social justice, peace and equality within society. Isn’t it natural to think that these very people are also employees at organizations that may not value or do enough for DE&I in the workplace? Thus, it’s plain to see how and why this movement has now penetrated boardrooms. The silent, hidden war has now manifested into a full-blown fire upon office doorsteps that can no longer be ignored. The future is here and the future looks a lot more promising for Black and Brown leadership.
So, I urge you, Corporate America, to take care of your fire before the rage spreads upward and onward.