By Chris Word, CPA
In the wake of the recent social unrest, it is easy to assume the answer to racial inequality is to improve the number of the underrepresented. Programs such as affirmative action and hiring quotas have provided opportunities to minorities that may not have been there in the past. However, they do not solve the problem of an inclusive workplace. It is one thing for a company to say they have a diverse workplace but are these companies creating a welcoming/inclusive work environment? As a Black certified public accountant with over 13 years of experience, I have learned to navigate corporate America and its ever-evolving work environments.
When faced with the question about race or inequality, many businesses across the country published statements to social media or their company’s website about how their business opposes racism, systemic or otherwise. According to a database gathered by thePlug.com, between May 27, 2020 and June 10, 2020, over 200 companies made social awareness statements on racial justice, Black Lives Matter, and George Floyd (Dorsey, 2020). Some of the most notable companies, such as Adidas, PepsiCo, and Facebook, committed to increasing the number of black and Latinx employees within the next five years. In fact, support for racial equality gathered so much momentum that the businesses and leaders that gave a counter argument were publicly shamed and protested, some were even boycotted. Yet, there are still many individuals asking the question, “What can I do to combat racism, social injustice, and inequality?”
As we enter a new year, many of us will be excited to be in the office again, welcoming the commute, water cooler talks, and interactive meetings. Although exciting to get back to “normal;” it would be a shame to not use this opportunity to improve the culture of our workplace. As individual employees and business owners, we should all strive to be understanding of each
other. Each of us is a result of our past experiences. Some of those experiences were good, and some were bad. However, one of the best things about the workplace is that no matter the journey, ethnicity, gender, or religion we all find ourselves in the same place at the same time. The social unrest has provided all of us time to reflect on our own perspectives.
As a person of color, I was taught that I must be twice as good to compete in the workplace. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it was ingrained in me that other ethnicities are provided certain advantages/privileges that would not be afforded to me. As I navigated the workplace, those advantages/privileges were not always clear. Therefore, to process any perceived undertones or meanings, I have learned to decipher my interactions with other ethnicities through a “racism filter.” During normal situations—such as team meetings, group interactions, and promotions—the racism filter always crosses my mind.
“The team never seems to support any of my ideas or suggestions.”
“The supervisor always seems to take certain people to lunch but has never invited me.”
“I missed the promotion for the second time?”
Whether those comments are true or not, American history in and of itself makes it easy to understand how people of color have an innate response to question the intentions of their colleagues. One example of this was during the 2020 vice presidential debate. Candidate Kamala Harris was debating the incumbent Mike Pence. Several times throughout the debate, Vice President Pence interrupted Senator Harris, dominating the designated time. Eventually, she began to say, “I am speaking now.” In the beginning, it seemed like an aggressive debate strategy. As a Black American, I struggled to balance his thoughts versus her respect. Did he feel privileged, by his title, ethnicity, or gender to interrupt her or was it in fact a debate strategy? I realize this question may not be shared or understood and I am okay with that. In fact, it is the very point that I am making. As we prepare to enter the workplace, it is important that we are considerate of the perspective of everyone, despite whether we agree or not. Far too long have we made the culture of the workplace a melting pot of uniformed opinion—either you agree, or you do not say anything. The pressure that is put on those who have a different perspective or opinion can be very demoralizing.
I believe one of the biggest reasons we do not see many minorities in top leadership positions in corporate America is because of attrition. I realize not everyone is going to become a leader of a company. That is not how the corporate ladder works. I am talking about other more interpersonal issues that force minorities out of the workplace sooner than others. Let me try to explain it this way. On paper, you possess the credentials and competence to fit in, yet your interactions with colleagues make you feel like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. How many times do you try to fit in before you leave? In 2019, the study “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration” was conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. This study found that overall, Black professionals are 12% more ambitious when starting their career than white professionals, yet Black professionals make up approximately 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs, executives, or senior leadership. The study also found that Black professionals find access to senior leaders to be more elusive than white professionals (Innovation, 2019). It is like a Catch-22 for many Black professionals—you have the ambition to be successful and build wealth for your family, so you obtain the necessary credentials to do the job. Yet, when you get there, you struggle to move up the corporate ladder; and because there are not many Black leaders to advocate or be mentors, you do not have the support or proper direction to succeed and therefore feel demoralized and leave. This only positions the next ambitious and qualified Black professional to experience it all over again. I believe one of the best things an individual employee or business owner can do to combat racial inequality and social injustice is to commit to improving the culture, specifically the inclusiveness, of their workplace.
From my experience, people act as if the culture of the workplace is always someone else’s responsibility; maybe human resources, the executive leadership, or even the diversity and inclusion committee. It is never their own. Another problem that many people fall into is the assumption that culture is the result of a policy, when in fact it is the simple everyday interactions with each other. Saying “hi,” is just the beginning—and it is not enough. Being respectful, listening to each other, offering support, communicating the details, and more importantly reducing the condescension, sarcasm, and rudeness goes a long way in making everyone feel part of the team. Do not get me wrong, there are “days” when things just are not going right; from the morning coffee until the late-night news, something puts a drag on the day. However, we should not let that get in the way of how we treat one another. Take responsibility for the culture of your workplace.
The point of this is not to ask for a handout or sympathy. The point is to encourage—better yet challenge—everyone who wants to improve racial inequality and diversity. Start with your workplace and be the example of the GOLDEN RULE.
Chris Word, CPA, works as a controller at CCGIQI. Originally from East Saint Louis, Illinois, he received his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Chris went on to obtain his master’s degree in accounting from the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, IN). Prior to joining CCGIQ, he worked at Ernst & Young, the Siegfried Group, and XPO Logistics. Chris is married and welcomed the birth of his daughter in October 2020.