Stories from the Field: A Black Leader’s Experience On Workplace Relationships and Diversity
Cultivating good relationships within the workplace cannot be emphasized enough, especially those built on trust and respect with your immediate manager. It is important on a day-to-day basis, but also for your career.
This is much easier said than done because it often escapes us that what everyone shares in the work environment is that we are human. Yet we are not all the same. So, developing good relationships in the workplace can be challenging. Much more so if the manager is white and the employees are black. This adds another dimension to already complicated work relationships.
Hoped for workplace relationships, where good ideas are heard, improved upon for the good of the organization and its clients or guests, elude black staff, who often see need and have solutions, leaving them feeling like they must walk on eggshells. The mutual distrust built through a sordid history of colonialism and outright slavery that reverberates to the societal structure today, leaves little room for solid interpersonal and working relationships with a white manager. They fear taking calculated risks because they believe their manager will not have their backs if they make a mistake. Especially when working at hotel resorts, where I gained much of my experience. Over 90% of the guests are white and find it difficult to understand that the staffs are their servers, and not their servants. This distinction to some may be subtle but it is one of the most important I can make.
It is strongly believed that not all white people are racist. In fact, I believe that most white people are good people but who, by their silence, allow others (of their race), in word and in deed to achieve racist ends. Or worse, they piss in my eyes and call it rain, claiming they do not see systemic racism nor should I. But is it truly so? A racist is defined as a person who, empowered by the dominant society to discriminate against people of other races. At its core, racism is premised on the power dynamics and on the belief of white superiority over subordinate races. Most, importantly, racism has distributional consequences. As blacks are held back and held down, the societal goods and services flow toward the white race. Not all white people openly demonstrate racism, but how many stand against it when it’s happening?
Not speaking out against discrimination allows systemic racism to continue. Racism belongs to all of us and plays out through individuals and from there though all of our institutions. Just because you’ve never put a cigarette against your lips, yet you habitually inhale the fumes from cigarette smokers around you does not mean you are not impacted by the smoke. Ignoring the realities of race at work is impossible and out of the question.
Black people feel the reason there is usually a white man in high management position within black dominated populations is because, sadly and unfortunately, black people, especially black Caribbean men and women are still shackled by the chains of mental slavery. The worst kind of slavery! They know there are black people among them who are just as capable, if not more so, of doing same managerial job. But it is clouded with a conscious or unconscious belief of “how dare they think they can sit at the same round table for a game of poker as the big boys?”
It is especially challenging for black staff to “get over it” when white managers assume that their subordinates face the same trials they do. To a certain extent that is true. After all, when it comes to the expectations for the job role, they seem the same.
Yet on the flip side, black staff often have to jockey for position in a toxic environment of differential treatment meted out along racial lines. This more often than not creates an atmosphere of extreme tension and distrust where, despite all outward appearances, the staff are not entirely happy. Their work suffers and solutions grounded in experience and creativity are stifled. This is especially true where there is not a strong black leader and mentor among the team to teach others how to work effectively in this environment.
Staff may even resign out of frustration. It is usually baffling to white managers when their black staff resign “out of nowhere,” or seem to “blow things out of proportion” over what looks to be a little issue. But to that staff person, that seemingly little issue is a, “I’ve had it with you and this place!” The true cause of departure is usually always much deeper than what appears on the surface. As a black leader, I find I have to work hard on all aspects of emotional intelligence with my team, my peers and my managers. The right conversation in the wrong mood between me or my manager or my client is the wrong conversation.
Every time I look back and think of my experience as a black individual working in hospitality with a white management and owners, one thought keeps resonating in my mind, “Boy, It must be good to be king.”
It may appear as an unfair and ungrateful statement to make and it is in no way meant to insult or disrespect. I respect that white managers also work under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines and achieve targets. I’ve learned and achieved so much from all of the places that I’ve worked under white managers. Yet, to my white managers, everything seemed okay with me when it honestly wasn’t. It’s amazing what the powers of a plastic face, good acting skills, strong will power and drive for success can do.
After long years of constant battles defending the quality of work and other good colleagues, this feeling that we need to guard ourselves, and the extra work that it takes to discern our true friends, creates significant additional stress. I eventually left my role to become a consultant. I too said I was leaving for “an exciting new opportunity”. But truthfully I was worn out by the need to constantly defend the team, watch out for myself, and the extra work it takes to determine who to trust. It is sad when “I don’t completely trust you” is your primary belief towards a manager even when you have accomplished much together over many years.
If staff members do not trust their manager, rest assured they want very little to do with him or her. They will always be professional, but will never open up or share more than needed. And they will do everything to avoid that manager as much as they can. The dynamic of the relationship and work will always be adversely affected with the best outcomes for both clients and staff never realized.
What can be done to overcome all of this? One thing is for certain, there is no one way around this nor is it an easy fix. But something has to give.
The hospitality sector is growing at an extremely rapid pace within the Caribbean. The nonprofit sector in the US is also growing quickly. Approximately 1.41 million nonprofits were registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2013, an increase of 2.8 percent from 2003. The sector contributed an estimated $905.9 billion to the US economy in 2013, composing 5.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (The Non Profit Sector in Brief 2015). There is a universal need to be able to relate to numerous ethnic and racial groups in both for profit and nonprofit organizations in the US as well as the Caribbean.
The first step is for management to commit to diversity and equality in the workforce. They need to be willing to ask themselves uncomfortable questions and prepared to deal with some discomforting answers. They must reevaluate the manner in which differences in the workplace are understood and managed. A team has to be built from the ground up, on shared values that include trust and respect.
Otherwise that team will never truly benefit from diversification and will simply continue the same practices with different people. This is absolutely key.
Here are a couple of suggestions for how to get started:
The Power of Circles
Together we can move toward more just workplaces. Put white managers in a conference room, with some of their black staff. Everyone is equal, sitting in a circle. This format enables participants to see everyone present. It almost gives a sense of over-exposure and yet allows for conversation to become intimate. Stress the fact that the meeting is a respectful and secure atmosphere for the staff, where they can speak openly with no repercussions. Your most important goal at this initial meeting is to create a safe forum to really get to know the each individual and their very different experiences at work and outside of the workplace. Only then from a shared knowledge and understanding, can you bring workforce issues and challenges into the open and find ways – together as a team – to sort them out in continued dialog.
If you’re looking for a way to show white managers how different their experience in the work environment is from the black staff, this in my humble opinion is one of your best bets.
This will also show the black staff at an organization that they need – and can – relax, open up and start to drop their defenses. This is so important since their own past experiences can create a high tendency to misinterpret situations and have a genuinely good white manager pay for the mismanagement of a past white boss.
From personal experience, in the beginning the room will be mighty tense with a huge grey cloud of awkwardness floating above everyone. With commitment to circle as a regular workplace practice, smart facilitation and the right preparation, the goal of a shared understanding will transform the culture of the organization.
Revisit your Recruitment Process
Another area that needs to be revamped is recruitment. In its current format, it feels to black people that quality looks like and comes from only a certain place. One place. Particularly when it comes to management roles. Therefore, a significant effort has to be devoted to change hiring methods that have been employed throughout time. Set clear expectations about the qualities and skill sets for the job. Then remove names of schools and the name of the applicant from all application forms. You’d be surprised how much something like this removes biases from the decision making of a hiring team.
From recruitment through to day-to-day working relationships, whatever processes you decide to use, once you commit to this work it is important to keep momentum. The worst thing you can do is to hold a meeting and do nothing. This merely reinforces the idea of not being heard. Just because you’ve found a meeting format for example that works the first time, it doesn’t mean that it is a “one and done” scenario.
It shouldn’t be looked upon as the end or the beginning. Growth and achievement will only be gained if it is treated as an ongoing process of relationship, trust and communication.
I’ve grown a lot, developed many tangible management skills and, more importantly, learned what it takes for a black leader to work and be seen and heard in a world of predominantly white leadership.
Essential is trust and respect and the immeasurably valuable skills of communication, listening, emotional intelligence to build a team and work with peers. Change is needed and it takes courage from everyone. Without this, our children and our children’s children will not do well. The question for all of us is what kind of a world do we want to live in? I hope this essay inspires discussion on how we can come together in our workplaces to create inclusive environments where everyone succeeds and creates sustainable organizations. I would welcome your thoughts and comments. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org