This year, I started writing a series called The Next Generation of Staffing, where I discuss topics relevant to staffing challenges in the technology field. Previous articles have covered managing people on the autism spectrum and gender diversity.
During unprecedented times of racial discord, a portion of the population is feeling a tsunami of emotions. Given recent events in the US and protests rising around the world, the time is right to talk about racial inequality at work. There is no silver bullet to solve the problem, but there is one simple thing everyone can do to help.
I was once there. Feeling constrained by my own existence. Feeling that every time I appeared at work, it was a shadow of myself. Feeling that I needed to wear a mask of what I thought would be accepted because being myself would never fit in. I was one of the top performers delivering on any and everything given to me. I solved problems that others could not see, and I was able to get teams to work in concert with each other in order to bring real transformation across the program. I knew there was glass ceiling over me, not just because I was a woman but because I was a black woman. And I was fine operating under those limitations because I knew the rules of the game. That was all I wanted because I thought that was all that was available to me.
I am thankful that I was released from that bondage of self-inflicted captivity. But I was released in the most unceremonious way by being told I did not bring value to the team, that my worth was little to nothing and therefore I was expendable, that my nine years of unwavering, sacrificial service was for not. No thank you cards, no farewell lunches…nothing. I was cast aside like garbage. My worth and contributions were devalued.
While many would say that I was a crucial component in the steady undercurrent for the operations of the organization, a select few would ignore my tangible contributions because they chose to center their opinion of me based on one factor. And while I can’t prove that it was based on my skin color, what I can prove was that I was the only one being devalued and those are the only differentiating characteristics between me and everyone else. That was just one of many moments I have experienced, that range from subtle macroaggressions to threats to livelihood or physical harm.
There is a silver lining to this story. The company’s performance started declining rapidly, and soon after executive leadership realized they needed to go in a different direction with their program leadership. Once they made the needed changes, they approached me, apologized, and asked me to come back and support their program. I did. But this time I did not return under the same veil of being an impostor. Instead, I vowed to myself to step into work being 100% authentically, unapologetically myself. And I have done so ever since without the fear of being judged and hindered for doing so. The weight of perpetrating a false perception was lifted, and I finally felt like I could breathe.
But like most things, my story is not unique. Our society still operates with plenty of racial bias, intentional and not, real and perceived, sometimes subtle and other times not so subtle. In “Dear White Boss…,” Keith Caver and Ancella Livers share stories of bias toward African Americans in the workplace. The stories they collected based on both personal experience and extensive research help illustrate the unprecedented times we are now facing. These times call into the question the very fabric that binds us together, testing its strength, its durability, and its resilience. These times have left so many emotionally vulnerable. So many people are tired of putting on the psychological armor each and every day as they greet and interact with their colleagues. So many are tired of standing, contorting, and trying to maneuver into an acceptable mold that was never built for them. So many are tired of just trying to be accepted as who they are.
This situation is a challenge for keeping top talent. This is an invisible problem that is prevalent in most organizations but the only symptom that can be witnessed is lack of minority seats at the table. Rarely do leaders want to triage the hundreds of microaggressions that led to the disenfranchisement of minority voices in their organization (as the Caver and Livers article mentioned above illustrates). Times like this, when we are experiencing great turmoil over racial inequities, shine a light on this issue.
Our organizations, for the most part, are a reflection of our society. Leaders are challenged with taking individuals from all walks of life and transforming them into functioning equitable teams. But we should all ask ourselves if there are racial disparities present in our own organizations, how are we actively fighting them, and how are we ensuring that we are protecting individuals in those vulnerable populations.
We should all ask ourselves if there are racial disparities present in our own organizations.
Leaders have to ask themselves why discussing race in the workplace is taboo. Is it because it makes so many people uncomfortable due to the fact it makes us question our fundamental core beliefs? People get on the defensive because they wouldn’t want to be labeled a racist. You would think that the workplace would be the best place for these kinds of conversations, because for most, it is the most socially dynamic environment that people have access to. But instead, we shy away from hard transparent conversations because silence from the few that experience daily discomforts is far better than minutes of discomfort for the many. Leaders must be bold and be OK with being transparent and uncomfortable. Leaders have the burden of charting and navigating the organization through these challenging conversations in order to have their team prosper and grow.
There is no silver bullet to resolve the deep-seated racial tensions and inequities in our country. But leaders can start to address any seeds of racial disparities within their own organizations. It can be changed by having one uncomfortable conversation at a time.
I challenge every Caucasian man and woman in a leadership position to have a frank conversation with a person of color (black, brown, etc.) and ask them about their experience in the workplace. Be open, be receptive, and come from a place of love and compassion. Anyone who feels they have to put on the veil of resolve at work, be transparent and truthful.
If we continue to only say the things we think people want to hear, we, the collective, will never get to a place of true understanding. You have to be vulnerable in order to give people the opportunity to extend compassion. If we start there, maybe we can see the trickle effects manifest into tangible changes, changes that could strengthen the ties that bind us together in our organizations and expand out to our greater society.
If you don’t feel comfortable to have these conversations in your workplace but need an outlet where you can be transparent without judgment, find me on LinkedIn. I am open to keeping the must-needed conversation going.
Dr. Alma Miller is an enthusiastic entrepreneur, speaker, and educator with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Catholic University, a Masters in Electrical Engineering from George Washington University, a Masters in Technical Management from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from George Washington University. Dr. Miller considers herself a relationship counselor between development and IT operations teams. Her consulting company,
AC Miller Consulting
, provides services to government and commercial clients across multiple industries. Dr. Miller speaks at industry conferences and events and teaches graduate courses for Johns Hopkins and University of California Irvine. Connect with her on
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