Colour shouldn’t matter

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

One of our readers, Salina, spotted this ad on the blog I Believe in Adv:

“Tria. Colour shouldn’t matter.”

Student Organization Ethnic Discrimination Campaign

Agency: Volt, Stockholm, Sweden
Copywriter: Volt
Art Director: Volt
Account Supervisor: Volt
Advertiser’s Supervisor: Volt

Watercooler: When money trumps racism

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from Ariella Drake:

I’m a white/Chinese Australian woman who looks mostly white, so I tend to hear all sorts of racism from white people who think they’re ’safe’. About five years ago, I worked for a rather large insurance company in their worker’s compensation claims department. Some of my job involved going out to workplaces to talk to employers about ongoing claims from injured workers.

One of our clients was a large manufacturing company that tended to employ mostly low-skilled immigrants, so their claims usually came from such employees. I was in a meeting with my supervisor, an underwriter and the contact for the organisation. These meetings tend to be rather a challenge, because the default attitude of employers when it comes to workplace injuries is that the injured workers are making it up and ‘milking the system’, particularly when it comes to non-white employees. This client, however, was particularly noxious. Not only did he generally ignore my answers to questions until my (male) supervisor practically repeated my answer (though I suspect that also had to do with the fact that I was in my late teens, which was rather unheard of in the position I held in the organisation, and generally led to older clients doubting my ability and knowledge), he felt the need to make racist comments about the injured workers whose claims we were discussing.

I was quite young at this point, and was still rather accepting of the idea that I should keep my mouth shut in the interests of retaining business for the company, but as the racist and derogatory comments escalated, particularly against Asian female employees, I couldn’t resist slotting in an comment about my own background when the opportunity presented itself. The client mostly toned down his comments after that, realising he wasn’t surrounded by ’safe’ whitefolks, though at the end of the meeting he still felt the need to make a joke about getting all the injured employees (he used racial slurs to refer to them) to lie down in the driveway as speedbumps as part of their restricted duties return-to-work program.

I was angry enough at having to sit through such a meeting, and I was actually quite shaken on the drive back. What I wasn’t expecting was my supervisor pulling me into a meeting room when we got back to the office to tell me that he thought my mentioning my background whilst the client was being openly racist was inappropriate and antagonistic, and could have cost the company business. I was shocked. I wasn’t really sure what to say in the meeting, but the more I look back on the incident, the more angry I feel. My supervisor was largely uninterested in how the client’s comments made me feel as a Asian woman (albeit one with light-skin privilege), and I realise now that the sick feeling in my stomach at the time was largely related to discovering that the company I worked for was so interested in money and ‘client relations’ that it was willing to overlook blatant and unapologetic racism and sexism from clients.

That wasn’t the reason I left the company, but it certainly made me less sad about leaving.

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.

Promoting diversity in American classical music

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

Aaron Dworkin is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic racial inequalities in the field of classical music.

Today we have the opportunity to learn about the underrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music and what Aaron’s organization has accomplished in its first 10 years. Also, if you are a public school teacher, check out the last question for tips that Aaron has given to inspire your students to become nationally competitive musicians.

In your experience as a performing musician, what have you noticed about diversity in classical music/orchestras?

Nationally, less than 4% of professional orchestras are comprised of Blacks and Latinos combined. This compares to over 15% within the population (for each group, with Hispanics now growing substantially). Additionally, growing up, I found myself to be either the only one or one in less than a handful of minorities playing in any orchestra, or in any musical setting (a classroom, concert hall as an audience member, a summer program, etc). This made me question why this is the case, and why there are no composers of color typically featured on any standard program, including ones I would perform myself.

It was not until my years at the University of Michigan that I discovered the substantial volumes of works by Black (and Latino) composers, and began to focus my degrees on the study of these tremendous works. I learned that there is a wealth of repertoire by minority composers, which merited attention, but hardly received any. I performed works by William Grant Still, David Baker, Noel da Costa, Roque Cordero, and others. I then began to look at what I can do in order to make others aware of this inequality and of what already exists in terms of the repertoire.

Thus was born the concept of a national competition for young Black and Latino string musicians, who would come together each year to showcase their talents and receive educational and professional development opportunities. I wanted this to be much more than a competition, as the building of a community was a very important aspect of the idea. I also wanted to bring to the forefront this incredible repertoire, to give it visibility and recognition, with the idea that some day, the repertoire by minority composers will become standard literature.

What is The Sphinx Organization and how has it developed diversity in American orchestras?

The Sphinx Organization is a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic under representation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music. As a violinist, I founded the organization to help overcome the cultural stereotype of classical music, and to encourage the participation of Blacks and Latinos in the field.

In the 10 year history of the organization, Sphinx has made the following impact:
-Over 45,000 students reached around the country
-Over 2 million individuals reached per year through national broadcasts
-Over $180,000 in quality instruments provided to young minority musicians
-Over $800,000 in prizes and scholarships
-Over 140 Laureate performances reaching over 150,000 in audiences

The name Sphinx was given to the organization to represent some of the founding principles that guided its conception. The Sphinx represents the historical and geographical source for many minorities and exemplifies the power, wisdom and persistence that we hope to instill in our participants. The Sphinx also constitutes a mystery, an enigma. Music shares this puzzling aspect, as it is born from the experiences and aspirations of the composer as well as the performer. Like the Sphinx, it is up to the beholder, the listener, to interpret and appreciate from the music what is ultimately a reflection of internal emotions and spiritual experiences. Continue Reading »

Recommended Reading

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Erica

Minority Workers Less Likely to Say Promotions Are Based on Merit - HR.BLR.com (Business & Legal Reports)
61.4% of all employees, 56.6% of Hispanic respondents, and 58.2% of black respondents said they thought their job performance was the main reason for their professional advancement. That doesn’t seem significant to me and speaks to larger issues: it’s as much who you know as what you know and there’s a systemic issue of lack of trust in one’s employer. (via Strategic HR Lawyer)

Paradox of Inclusion - Management Craft
There are two kinds of inclusion. There’s the politically correct kind where you make a show of inviting along a “representative” group to your meeting du jour and you “listen” to what they have to say and then go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway. Then there’s the kind where you actually listen to the voices of the people around you, even (and especially) when you might not agree with them.

Where Delivery Is a Mainstay, a Rebellion Over Pay - New York Times
Deliverymen in NYC, mostly Chinese immigrants, are protesting their working conditions, long hours, and meager pay. Unions are organizing, workers are getting locked out, and lawsuits are being filed.

Is It a Mistake to Be a Stay-at-Home Mother? - The Monster Blog
“[T]he more pressing question is not whether mothers should work (more than 70 percent of mothers with school-age children do), but how we can structure our society in a way to allow us to meet our caregiving needs. We, as men and women, bear some responsibility in that mandate, both to instill change within our organizations and within our own lives.” I’d like to see a discussion actually address this statement and go beyond “I stayed at home and it worked out for us” which further perpetuates the concept that you have to make a choice (and a sacrifice). Flex time, anyone?

LinkedIn and the Art of Avoiding an Asshole Boss - How to Change the World
How to get references on a potential boss. Guy Kawasaki suggests finding him/her on LinkedIn, seeing who they’re connected to, then asking these potential references a few questions. I appreciate the idea that you need to check out a potential employer as much as they’re checking you out. The comments on Guy’s post are mostly useless, but there are a few good constructive criticisms.

Churners and Churning - Generations@Work
Kids these days, the “Millennials,” are increasingly open to more global job opportunities. Which is good because that’s where the jobs are. The conflict is that younger folks are also a lot more likely to change jobs more frequently while employers and the government are looking to improve retention, which may be unrealistic given the nature of the current job market.

Wisdom and a Helping Hand - Amy Joyce at washingtonpost.com
On the importance of being a good mentor. The very large company I used to work for had very well-developed mentorship programs serving a variety of populations within the company. I participated in the “new minority employees” program and the “new technical employees” program. Mentors were very carefully screened and a lot of attention was paid to the matching process. These programs were crucial in my development there, and in my ultimate decision to leave, which I consider a testament to a good mentor/mentee relationship in that the best decision for me as a person was to not stay with the company, and my mentors were supportive of that.

How to ask for mentoring - Brazen Careerist
On the flip side of the mentoring relationship. Penelope Trunk emphasizes that it’s all in the approach. Ask good questions of your potential mentor. More importantly, don’t be afraid to ask in the first place.

Georgetown Gets Grant for Workplace Flexibility - Workplace Prof Blog
“Workplace Flexibility 2010 believes that social change occurs best through a combination of voluntary action and government action. The American workplace is a complex, constantly changing, and rich human environment. We believe the best policy approach to workplace flexibility therefore combines thoughtful and creative government regulation, robust voluntary and individualized efforts by employers and employees, and governmental support of innovative employer and employee efforts.” Outstanding!

Fear Of Firing - BusinessWeek
“How the threat of litigation is making companies skittish about axing problem workers.” There are several issues: Whether the employee really is an underperformer, whether or not they really are being discriminated against, and whether the company retaliates when they get wind of the discrimination allegation. Even the largest companies with the most rigorous policies and review processes get caught up in seemingly frivolous lawsuits.

Recommended Reading is a weekly feature where we link to some of our favorite workplace-related blog posts and articles. If you would like to suggest a link to Erica, please email tips@raceintheworkplace.com

The HR department protects the company, not you

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Penelope Trunk is a career columnist at the Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance. Her syndicated column has run in more than 200 publications. Earlier, she was a software executive, and then she founded two companies. She has been through an IPO, an acquisition and a bankruptcy. Before that she played professional beach volleyball. Her forthcoming book is Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success (Warner, May 2007). Be sure to check out her excellent blog, Brazen Careerist.

One of the most compelling statements you make in your book is that the human resources department exists to protect the company, not the employees. Can you explain what you mean by that, and how people should adapt their behavior to match this reality?

Laws about discrimination seem to be there to protect employees, but in fact, they are laid out very clearly to guide companies so they will not be sued. Human resource departments exist, in a large part, to ensure that companies comply with the law. The people in the HR department work for the company. They are there to make sure the company is protected. In an instance where someone comes to HR and says they have experienced discrimination at work, HR does not represent the person who has suffered from discrimination. HR represents the company.

When you report a problem to human resources, you become a problem employee, the company immediately starts trying to defend itself from you, and the company has legal support and you don’t. It’s a losing battle, which is why most whistleblowers lose their job. Legally. Retaliation for whistle blowing is rampant and it’s very, very hard to prove in courts, especially since the HR departments are trained on how to retaliate within the constraints of the law.

If you’re at a company where there is a lot of discrimination, you should probably not bother trying to reform the place. Why jeopardize your career to make a terrible company good? Don’t bother helping them. Just leave. But if you at a company with a little bit of discrimination, you might consider staying. Because where have you ever been in this world where there is no discrimination? It’s a very tall order.

We all know that we have to pick our battles when it comes to discrimination in the workplace. The advice you gave about sexual harassment was incredibly practical and smart. In my opinion, it also has some relevance for people who may be experiencing racial discrimination. Can you explain how women can actually turn sexual harassment into a career booster?

A man who harasses a women (it’s almost always the men doing the harassing) actually gives up some of his power to that woman. For one thing, harassment is illegal, and even if you don’t report it, you can remind the guy that he is doing something that could cause him trouble. Do this not as a threat, but to subtly shift the power toward yourself. You are now doing him a favor by keeping quiet. He owes you a favor back.

So often the best way to change corporate America is from within: gain a foothold and then wield your power. To get power, you have to stay in the workforce, not the court system, and make yourself highly valued. Unfortunately, this means learning how to navigate a discriminatory system. But when you know the system, you then are clear about the root of its problems, and you know how to initiate change. Continue Reading »

Recommended Reading

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Erica

Measuring the Gender Gap - New York Times
According to this study from Elle magazine and MSNBC.com, most women would still rather work for a man, most women still feel like they need to work harder than men to get the same recognition, and men are honing those “feminine skills” of listening and communication. Also in the article: the one occupation where it pays to be less attractive is babysitting (when it’s the mom that’s doing the hiring).

Too Busy to Notice You’re Too Busy - New York Times
Edward M. Hallowell’s new book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap, talks about our compulsive need to fill our time. In short, it’s our need to maintain control over the near-constant influx of information, even though we’re ultimately not in control of it at all if we’re constantly responding to it. I stopped in the middle of writing this paragraph to answer the e-mail ding and to Twitter something.

Discriminating Dress - Washington Post
A Muslim woman tells the story of her interviewers’ noticeable reaction to her head scarf. “General religious discrimination charges made up 1.9 percent of all charges filed in 1992, while they accounted for 3.1 percent in 2004, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The number of charges filed by Muslims alleging discrimination doubled from the four years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the four years after, according to David Grinberg, a spokesman with the EEOC.”

How We Grow Bullies and Bad People - Management Craft
Inspired by the Kathy Sierra cyberbullying situation. One way we, as a society, let this happen is by letting racist jokes go unchecked. More generally, we really enjoy our schadenfraude and let ourselves be entertained by things that we ought to be putting a stop to instead.

The Debate Heats Up - Generations@Work
Russ Eckel starts out with this question: “Are young people today more narcissistic and thus more likely to find it difficult to participate constructively in our society as they age?” He goes on to talk about how prejudices against minority youth confound the issue.

EEOC Initiative to Eradicate Racism - Strategic HR Lawyer
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is launching an initiative called E-RACE (Eradicating Racism And Colorism from Employment). According to the EEOC, 31% of Asian-Americans and 26% of African-Americans have reported witnessing or experiencing discrimination in the workplace.

Recruiting and Presenting Immigrant Candidates - The Desk of Yvonne LaRose, Consultant
Yvonne LaRose reflects on the topic of how so many people come to this country with big credentials and big dreams, and what they actually end up doing once they get here to get by.

Not enough visas? 150K Applications in One Day - WageSlave
150,000 H-1B visas for immigrants were allotted for 2008. They were all distributed within a day, in record time.

Recommended Reading is a weekly feature where we link to some of our favorite workplace-related blog posts and articles. If you would like to suggest a link to Erica, please email tips@raceintheworkplace.com.

The business of selling and consuming blackness

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Hadji Williams has spent over 15 years in the advertising and marketing worlds at Chicago and New York agencies great and small, including BBDO and FootSteps Group. Williams is also an educator, having taught over 20 introductory and advanced advertising courses at Columbia College Chicago.

A recent Californian, Williams is also the author of the controversial Knock The Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America (2006), KTH: VoL. 2 (Fall 2007) and C.R.E.A.M. (Winter 2007). Currently Williams has launched ProdigalPen, Inc. Publishing, which is dedicated to sharing the stories of multicultural life.

One of the most interesting chapters in your book is titled “Crop Circles and Alarm Clocks: Pride and Prejudice in Corporate America.” How do crop circles and alarm clocks relate to race in the workplace today?

While writing KTH I wanted to come with a way to explain the patterns of bigotry and bias that exist in corporate America to people who may not have had the experiences that I’ve had. So I settled on “crop circles” and “alarm clocks.”

As you know crop circles are these wildly bizarre geometric patterns that mysteriously appear in fields in rural America. The first time we see photos of ‘em or network coverage of them, we scream “hoax” or “fraud” because they’re just too blatant and specific to have been anything else, right?

That’s how instances of bigotry and bias go down in business—when someone shares an instance, it must be a hoax, a fraud, an exaggeration, or some sort of scheme to get money or sympathy. It can possibly be true. And since most of corporate life involves sophisticated liberal whites and not the so-called backwards thinking rural whites that we often blame racism on, any reported instances of mistreatment must be simple misunderstandings, right?

Alarm clocks are the result of believing said hype. They’re random wake up calls that remind you that the world isn’t as liberal or inclusive as you’ve been suckered into believing. For example, I’ve worked with numerous white colleagues and bosses who’ve told that because I can speak in complete sentences and don’t have an over-the-top swag, that I “wasn’t like the ‘regular black people’” they knew. Regular. Hmmm… Or some of the times I’ve been called N-word at work. Or have been paraded around a client’s offices because they couldn’t believe that a black guy was developing their campaigns.

Those are some of the random wake up calls that I’ve received over the years. Just reminders that bigotry exists in many places and many forms and the worst thing you can do is believe people who benefit from it when they say “oh no, we treat everyone equal.” Continue Reading »

How to turn your ethnicity into a competitive edge

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

Kenneth Arroyo Roldan is the CEO of Wesley, Brown & Bartle (WB&B), one of the nation’s leading executive search firms dedicated to the recruitment, retention and professional development of women and people of color. He is also author of the book Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity Into a Competitive Edge.

Roldan’s advice is unique because he gives specific responsibility to the individual, instead of putting a vague blame on employers. It obviously takes work from both employer and employee to ensure a positive work experience. Roldan’s career planning advice is not only useful for people of color, but should be acknowledged as solid information for anyone looking to advance his or her career, regardless of race.

Take responsibility for where you are in your career and don’t be a bystander in your potential growth. Roldan’s no. 1 tip is: Find a trustworthy mentor to help guide you through the corporate world.

Which departments should people of color look out for that may hinder their chances to climb the corporate ladder?

Based on my experience on the front-lines, the following roles should be avoided like the plague:

  • Chief Diversity Officer/ Diversity Manager
  • Ethnic Marketing
  • Public Finance
  • Community Relations
  • Supplier Diversity

However, be mindful if you are positioned in this role – make sure you hit and move. Do your tour of duty and while doing so plan an exit strategy.

How can people of color rise through the ranks while maintaining their identities and not assimilating completely into a white male dominated culture?

People of color can absolutely rise up the ranks and simultaneously retain their identity. Minority Rules highlights several high performers like Mary Winston, Al Zollar or Carlos Valle – all of which made it to the top, have proudly self-identified internally within their organizations and have been integral in positioning program and projects that benefited people of color.

What steps should a minority employee take when they feel they are not being treated as fairly as their co-workers?

First pearl of wisdom: don’t do the knee-jerk reaction and initiate a lawsuit. Those professionals who have internal challenges should speak to their mentor/sponsor and gain their counsel; thereafter you should speak to your supervisor, then to HR. In the event you receive no satisfaction, start planning your exit strategy.

You write that minority job seekers should do their homework to find out which corporations are sincerely open to diversity. Do you have advice on how to research which corporations really stand up to the test? Should job seekers go directly to company websites, are there other resources?

Research, research, research. The benefits available due to the internet is immense. There are various websites like Vault.com which often give prospective employees intelligence about a company. The company websites are a primer but will never shed true-light about a company. I am a proponent of relying on your alumni network to gain company intelligence.

Once a company promotes that their hiring practices are fair and open to minority applicants, how can all levels of the organization stay committed to the policy?

Let’s face it — most if not all of the Fortune 500 promote that their hiring practices are fair and open to minority applicants – they have to, it’s the law!!!! However, despite organizations articulating they are committed to the policy – particularly the CEO and his/her senior executives – by the time it trickles down the organization, the message [can] always fall on deaf ears.

For more information

Click the play button below to hear Carmen’s interview with Kenneth Arroyo Roldan on episode 53 (December 25, 2006) of New Demographic’s weekly podcast, Addicted to Race:

You can find more Race in the Workplace interviews in our archives.