Being Black at Work

illustration of a black employee working and eating at his desk while colleagues go out to lunch

Illustration by Jungyeon Roh

Diversity, equity, inclusion: these are the watchwords for companies hoping to foster the best talent, regardless of race. But do their efforts, like anti-bias workshops meant to train employees to recognize their own prejudices, really help minorities feel welcomed and accepted? What is it like, wondered Ranjay Gulati, Lawrence M.B.A. class of 1942 professor of business administration, to be black at a big firm? With Frank Cooper III, a prominent black executive and current Chief Marketing Officer at BlackRock, he studied dozens of employees at elite companies. They found that even well-intentioned firms fail to make black employees feel seen and heard.

With this research, detailed in the Harvard Business Review article, “What Do Black Executives Really Want,” Gulati and Cooper hoped to let people speak for themselves. Gulati, whose research focuses on how leadership shapes the success of an organization, had already completed a case study of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, who has created a positive work environment for a largely black group of players. Rather than taking the approach of a drill sergeant removing players’ individuality, Carroll makes a point of appreciating their differences and forging personal connections.

For this new work, Gulati and Cooper spoke to black executives at blue chip companies and then conducted several focus groups with 8-10 younger black employees. The companies were forward-looking firms that had made commitments to inclusion, so “to hear [employees] saying how incomplete or inadequate things were was a bit of a shock,” said Gulati in an interview.

But the problems many participants described were more subtle than might be addressed with a three-day workshop, said Cooper, separately. Young black employees, despite being high-achieving and highly educated, often felt left out socially. Colleagues at a venture-capital firm might chat among themselves about sailing and sushi, one participant reflected. But they didn’t try to connect with him. Another participant reported something similar, Gulati and Cooper related: “White peers going out to lunch with one another but failing to invite him or seeming ‘standoffish’ and uninterested in getting to know him….‘They were definitely more curious about each other’s family or family relationships than they were about mine,’ he explained.”

Many black employees also reported a substantial disconnect between their genuine selves and the front they put up at work, paired with a sense that it is risky to try to contribute too eagerly. Black men in particular noted that they cannot express displeasure, for fear of being thought of as threatening.

Perhaps most insidiously, the sense that they are not quite accepted can start to shake their own confidence. “When not one but many clients and even colleagues [one participant] has just met seem shocked that he’s a certified public accountant, it feels like they’re questioning his competence and potential,” Gulati and Cooper related in the article. This impression is reinforced by the tendency for managers to overlook employees’ professional development, the researchers learned; one participant reported that it took two years for her boss to ask what her goals were.

The things black employees need are the things all employees deserve.

The things black employees need are the things all employees deserve, the researchers concluded: They need to feel safe at work, to feel seen, and to feel heard. Companies can foster an appropriately supportive culture by pressing harder to achieve a critical mass of minority employees—so many, said Cooper, that people stop being the minority in the room and start being seen as individuals with their own opinions and strengths, approachable for a lunch out, talented enough to excel professionally.

This matters especially at the higher echelons of management, continued Cooper, who, before joining BlackRock, held the role of CMO at Buzzfeed and at PepsiCo. Looking back on his own experience, the scarcity of visible examples of black people in high-power roles sometimes made it difficult for his managers to see his potential. “I was fully aware that they were not able to perceive me as someone that would be in the C-suite,” he said. “They had never seen it before, so they couldn’t imagine it.”

Participants said that they would love to be engaged by their managers as people: asked about their lives, their families, their goals. And providing public affirmation for black employees that they are good at their jobs is a straightforward way to unleash their potential and improve the work environment. “Jordan described a meeting in which a teammate was disregarding his expertise until his boss intervened with a ‘Let’s trust Jordan,’” wrote Gulati and Cooper. “‘Just to hear the words felt good,’ he told us.” Indeed, “It demonstrated to Jordan and his colleagues that his boss believed in his ability—giving him confidence and affirming his competency.”

Reflecting on that interview, Gulati said that he was touched but also chagrined that such a modest act of affirmation had become such an important moment for the participant. “He had never had that happen with him before,” he said. “That to me was incredible. I was like, how can that be?”

For Cooper, when participants emphasized the power of generosity and genuine interest, that corresponded with experiences in his own early career. “Individual people saw me and supported me,” he said, “when they didn’t have to.”

Read more articles by: Veronique Greenwood

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