Watercooler: black = stupid?

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 Sullie:

Some background: I work at a company run by middle-aged white men; the employees are also white, are women, and most of them are under 30.

This morning, the two meeting planners in the office were researching how to become certified meeting planners; to do so they need to join a professional meeting planners association. Not wanting to spend too much of the company’s money on membership fees, they were looking into various associations listed on an industry website to try to narrow down which might be the most cost effective one to join.

When they saw the Association of Black Meeting Planners, the young white employee remarked “Yeah! That is so me! Sign me up for that group!” to which her boss replied “Well, they probably are the cheapest one to join - but I can’t really understand why they have a professional association in the first place…”

Then the conversation turned to why there should not be organizations like that anyway, since “They are always the ones who want to be treated the same as everyone else. If I applied and they turned me down, I could just scream about racism too, right?”

The conversation ended with the boss informing the employee that if black people are taking any type of civil service exam, they are given more points then white people taking the same exam, just because they’re black. To which the employee replied “What because they’re stupid they get extra points? That’s so unfair! Stupid people are just stupid people!”

It wasn’t really my place to interject since I was in an adjacent office and just overhearing their conversation, but I did have to go hide in the bathroom to keep from piping up. Of course, she was on track with her classification of stupid people…if only she realized she was talking about herself…

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.

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.

When you’re too honest during diversity training

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

I’ve always thought this scene, from Comedy Central’s show “Dog Bites Man,” was hilarious. Watch the diversity trainer’s face as the woman describes the dream she had. :)

Watercooler: The missing wedding invitation

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 Merq:

So there’s this guy, we’ll call him Frank, who is a first-generation Greek American. Now, Frank can only be described as a “special” kind of fellow… There are a million race-related stories involving him, but today I’m going to tell just one.

Our boss, Jim, is really the salt of the earth. Every one of his employees can list at least five instances where Jim has gone (far) above and (way) beyond his role as an employer to help resolve issues in their personal lives. It’s because of Jim that we are a surprisingly tight-knit team—an anomaly in our organization. So anyway…

Frank gets engaged, but he drops hints to suggest that he’d prefer that none of us show up to the wedding. Besides the larger Caucasian population of our small department, the group includes individuals of Nigerian (me), Egyptian, and Korean origin. But while many of us could care less about not being welcome at this wedding, I was more than a little disgusted at his refusal to invite our boss, Jim.

A little background on Jim and Frank: This man campaigned to the higher-ups to elevate Frank’s status from an internship to a high-ranking position within our department. This man got into heated arguments with said higher-ups when they refused to give Frank a raise. This man listened to Frank whine for hours on end whenever he argued with his fiancée (and they fought a lot), offering the best advice one could after 22 years of happy, stable married life. This man even went to Frank’s amateur league baseball games from time to time! The only problem was, this man was black. Continue Reading »

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

I have a “great job,” lots of money, responsibility and respect. Why aren’t I happy? - Escape from Cubicle Nation
If your values and your current work situation don’t align, you probably won’t be happy. People spend a remarkable amount of time in jobs they don’t really like because they don’t recognize this or don’t do anything about it.

5 steps to let your dream job find you - Marketing Nirvana
These days, everyone has an online presence. Leverage that to establish yourself as knowledgeable in your field by blogging and participating online conversations on topics of interest. Then network like crazy, both online and off. Think LinkedIn, not myspace.

How Blogging Can Help You Get a New Job - WSJ.com
Remember: Your potential employer will probably Google you. Someone who has the power to offer you a job may come across your blog. This is where you show off your writing skills and passion on a subject. Doesn’t hurt to mention you’re job-hunting on your About page, either. On the flip side, they might not be impressed by your detailed account of how trashed you got last weekend.

Five ways to do better in phone interviews - Brazen Careerist
Pretending as if you’re actually doing the interview in person, even though it’s just over the phone, helps you project confidence.

What Your Body Is Telling an Interviewer - Career Hub
Some tips on what to do and what not to do. Basically, try not to look nervous and be attentive. Perhaps also useful for playing poker. I’m guilty of having a couple things on the What Not to Do list as regular nervous habits.

It’s Easy to Signal that Racist “Chatter” Isn’t a Big Deal! - The Black Factor
If you hear comments that are offensive, don’t let it slide. You can make your point effectively by simply getting up and walking away. I recently received a forwarded joke from a co-worker that was very anti-immigrant. I was offended but didn’t know what to say without getting into a whole to-do-da. I could have simply told them not to send me anymore jokes.

Do you need to be hip? - Management Craft
Managers and leaders need to be hip in the sense that they know what’s going on with the people that work for them. Especially when that means you’re keeping up with technology (like blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.) that could potentially help your team work better.

Why Severance? - Evil HR Lady
Companies give out severance packages because it’s cheaper than being sued for wrongful termination (among other reasons). “Companies would prefer not to have to give out this money, but even one lawsuit can be very expensive as well as being a public relations nightmare. If you are in any protected class (minority, female, over 40, etc) getting you to go away happily is their biggest concern.”

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

Watercooler: When the chair of the anti-racism committee is a racist

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 V:

I work for a government agency which is charged with promoting community harmony and working to increase our city’s level of interracial trust. While i am an employee of the agency, we also have an extension arm of volunteers from the community who serve on a committee and actually do much of the leg-work. The Chair of the committee is an older white man from Baltimore who is prone to saying things like “Illegal Alien” at community immigration discussions, “China-man” or “Oriental” when discussing Yao Ming’s athletic ability, and waxed nostalgic during a luncheon about how the “A-rabs” used to sell goods on the streets of Baltimore when he was a lad.

Anyway, one day at work i discussed with him finding possible funding sources to help sponsor a study abroad trip to learn Spanish in an immersion program. While grilling me, an African American female, on why it is necessary for me to learn Spanish since we already have one Spanish speaker on staff, he also pointed out that my country of choice (Dominican Republic) sounded like i was tyring to get a work funded beach vacation.

As I stood there like an idiot trying to convince him that I was serious and not looking for a free vacation, the discussion turned to the benefits of immersion studies in terms of the cultural experience. To which he stated “Well if you want to know what it’s like to be an immigrant, I can call homeland security and tell them you’re a terrorist and have you deported. Of course they would have to send you to Africa, because you clearly don’t look Hispanic.”

I don’t remember much after that. The red veil of rage lowered and I went to my office to fume.

The thing that kills me about this guy is everyone knows he’s racist but yet and still he is the Charmian of a committee created by our local government to fight racism and discrimination.

Now, when i deal with him, i am quick to cut him short and point out his racism. Oddly enough, his impromptu visits to my office have dwindled significantly. Coincidence…?

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.

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 »