As minority professionals, it is extremely important for us to critically assess the environments that we work in. Organizational culture is something that isn’t always discussed in great depth in the Black community, though it should be, considering that we make up only 11% of the professional workforce. Statistically speaking, we work for organizations whose priorities, missions, and objectives were all developed by white people–and therefore represent white people. Our cultural norms are developed and sustained through environmental influences. They determine the way we communicate, the way we process, the way we socialize, and the way we react, in addition to influencing our preferences, tastes, and biases. Because Black people are underrepresented in the workplace–from Corporate America, to the nonprofit sector, to medicine and everything in between–we tend to be forced to adapt to the dominant [white] culture in order to meet the [white determined] bar for success.
As a result, it’s crucial for us to understand how [white] people operate, why they operate that way, what their expectations are of you and of themselves, how much of themselves they bring to work and in turn, expect you to bring to work, and ultimately if the environment is one that you can comfortably thrive in. Here are a few workplace norms to be aware of and pay close attention to as you navigate your environment:
Manager investment is one of the key levers in career advancement, but so often, white managers struggle to manage their black direct reports because they don’t understand how critically different our needs are from theirs. They don’t understand what it feels like to feel alienated or tokenized; they don’t understand how painful it is to swallow a micro-aggression instead of saying something about it for fear of coming across as the race baiting Black person; they don’t understand how it feels for their work experience and knowledge to be overlooked and substituted for their knowledge of diversity as a result of their lived experiences. It’s not possible to holistically develop someone that you don’t understand. Is there a willingness in your white manager to acknowledge and understand your Black experience? Or is there an assumption that you will suck it up and assimilate, leaving your full Black self at home?
2| The Distribution of Power and Influence
Who is represented at the decision-making table and who isn’t? What is the racial makeup of the organization’s leadership? Whose voices carry the most weight, and whose voices are silenced? What is the turnover rate of Black employees versus white ones? What are the implications of this? Pay close attention to how power is assigned and utilized in your workplace. Observe any differences in workplace satisfaction between white employees and your fellow Black ones (if there are any). Identify if there is anyone in the organization who looks like you and is in a position that you aspire to. If not, what does that tell you about the organization’s investment in developing you?
3| Transparency and Trust
Take note of the way decisions are made–is there collective influence, or do conversations behind closed doors lead to significant changes or new initiatives? Human beings in general desire trust in their relationships–be it personal relationships or professional ones. Trust is built entirely on transparency, communication, and honesty. Are these pillars that your organization lives by? Can you really trust what people are telling you, or does it tend to feel like there’s more to the story? Do new job positions seem to popup for certain people without your knowledge that a position was even open or posted? Are people willing to be vulnerable and authentic? Or do they only tell people what they think they want to hear? As Black professionals, we have to navigate these questions with a heightened awareness to our identities. While your white colleague may have the privilege to vent and share uncensored feedback, a similar episode coming from you will probably not be received in the same way. Learn how to communicate your message in the language of your target audience in order to get the result you want (i.e. learn how to play the game). Don’t give people any more than they’re giving you. If they say they value transparency but you know they’re engaging in hush hush deals behind closed doors and then are requesting transparency from you, give them the same type of transparency that they’re giving you. Acknowledge if you need to refine your personal norms to fit the professional norms of your environment. Is this something that you’re comfortable with or extremely bothered by? May tell you if this workplace is the right one for you.
4| The Rumor Mill
Unfortunately, gossip is very difficult to avoid in any work environment. People love to talk about other peoples’ lives in order to validate their own. As Black professionals, we do not have the choice to get caught up in workplace gossip and put ourselves at risk to be accused of engaging in it (especially if the recipient of the gossip is white). Take mental note of who runs the rumor mill and who runs with the information in it. Manage your relationships with your colleagues closely, using the observations that you’ve made (i.e. know the people who can take your simple answer to a “how are you?” and turn it into the next gossip headline). In white-dominated environments, it’s much easier for white people to bring their full selves to work without those selves being misinterpreted. While you shouldn’t feel the need to put 10-foot cinder block walls around yourself, manage the personal information that you share with others cautiously, intentionally, and with an awareness of potential outcomes in mind.
To be honest with you, a little skepticism in the workplace isn’t a bad thing. While most companies are adding some type of “diversity and inclusion language” to their mission statements or core values, this is still very new territory for us in the grand scheme of things. For centuries, wealthy white men comprised 100% of the [paid] workforce, and therefore modeled the norms, expectations and company cultures off of themselves. Acknowledge that while our brilliance and magic is needed and highly impactful in our work spaces, there is still a long way to go before we truly experience equity. Walk boldly in your Blackness so we can start rewriting the rules and modeling our work environments off of our beautiful, Black culture.