Commentary: Many Blacks Find Corporate Environments Unwelcoming

Yes, some African-Americans are finally breaking down the business world’s racial barriers.  But a new world of hostility is waiting for them on the inside.

Posted: 10/21/2012 11:22 PM EDT

For quite some time now, successful African-American businesspeople have been promoting diversity in the corporate world.

An Urban League of Greater Madison study found that the entire state of Wisconsin had only seven Black CEOs last year, all but two of whom worked at nonprofits. And just this month, the Executive Leadership Council, a group of successful African-American business leaders, put out a “call to action” in which they made the case that increasing a company’s diversity isn’t just good morally, but also financially.

While some people work to ensure that more Blacks can gain entry into the world of business, a new study shows that it’s not all smooth sailing for the African-Americans who have already been able to break through corporate racial barriers.

The study, “Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership," says that though a growing number of African-Americans are getting into the formerly lily-white corporate world, some of them don’t feel very comfortable once inside the boardrooms. Reports the Harvard Business Review’s Sylvia Ann Hewlitt:

More than 35% of African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as 45% of Asians, say they "need to compromise their authenticity" to conform to their company's standards of demeanor or style. Forty percent of African-Americans — and a third of people of color overall — feel like outsiders in their corporate culture, compared with 26% of Caucasians.

[…]

Fewer than a third of Asian-Americans feel very comfortable being themselves at work, according to earlier research from the CTI. An Indian vice president at a multinational pharmaceutical firm recounts being told by her boss that her Anglo-Indian accent was "too stuffy." She, like many others interviewed in our studies, avoids referring to Hindu holidays, discussing cultural mores with coworkers, or wearing anything that might be perceived as too ethnic. "You lead a dual life, you absolutely do," said another Indian senior manager. "There is an inhibition. You just don't want to talk about it. And I'd never dream of wearing a sari to work."

One perfect example of the unwelcoming nature of business toward African-Americans is company policies stating that dreadlocks or afros or other natural Black hairstyles are “unprofessional.” The underlying message there is that inherent Blackness isn’t welcome, thus adding to the discomfort some people of color feel in Fortune 500 companies.

Ella Bell, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, calls this discomfort “bicultural stress,” and, according to the Harvard Business Review, “people of color are 37% more likely than whites to feel that they need to compromise their authenticity at work in order to conform to conventional standards of executive presence.” In other words, a lot of African-Americans feel like in order to succeed in business they can’t be themselves.

One thing that could help change all this, of course, is the sensitivity training many corporations already institute to promote healthy diversity. But that’s a less effective solution than the most obvious choice: Begin intentionally diversifying the workplace with people from all cultures. Once you do that, not only will differences begin to be normalized, but employees will benefit by learning from one another and not some boilerplate sensitivity manual.


These views do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Todd Warnock / Getty Images)

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