Can We Talk About Corporate “Culture”?

I had a conversation with a friend recently. She was upset because she had been pulled into a meeting with her supervisor. She sat down, not fully aware of what the meeting was about. Her supervisor began the meeting with the question “Do you like working here?”

As a matter of context, my friend is a black woman. She is a brilliant web designer, programmer, musician, and artist. I have worked with her directly on projects and watched her manage both clients and deliverables with aplomb. The company for which she works full time, despite being headquartered in Atlanta which is over fifty-percent black, has only one black employee, her. To be fair, there was one other black employee, but they were fired weeks before my friend started.

Every Black History Month corporations make a habit of trotting out their diversity and equality initiatives draped in Benetton like photo spreads that all seem to hit the golden ratio of multiculturalism and Martin Luther King quotes. But for most marginalized people, the image and the reality often don’t mirror one another.

“Do you like working here?” My friend said yes of course. Her supervisor then asked why her coworkers felt otherwise? It turned out that my friend’s contemporaries commented to her supervisor that she seemed disengaged during meetings and seemed “unapproachable”. She often sits in meetings quietly taking notes on her phone or laptop, similar to her other colleagues.

She stays on top of her projects which often includes extra work due to revisions and other changes based on the trickling down of others mismanagement and mistakes. My friend was blindsided. Nobody on her “team” ever had a conversation with her. They instead went straight for what was clearly the nuclear option.

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. These three words have become the North Star for corporations attempting to achieve some semblance of demographic balance and cultural sensitivity. In my one personal experience in a corporate space, DEI initiatives tended to be much more arduous and academic than it needed to be. The bulk of the conversations that we would have during DEI conferences seemed to be an exercise in making marginalized people comfortable in white culture. At other times it felt like theater. Most frustrating for me was the process of creating a path towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (a word that, in this context still irks me as it ratifies the concept of being invited to participate in white culture which was firmly established as the standard) had been broken down to these arduous microscopic tasks. It was the equivalent of pushing a parked car an inch and measuring the progress by the sweat created instead of the distance traveled.

“Do you like working here?” It is as much a question as it is a veiled threat. It is a question that doesn’t care for an answer because, as a means of survival, there is only one answer. It is admonishment served up Jeopardy style. “What is yes Alex.” My friend after proffering her obligatory response to the question began debunking the the line of offenses she was sideswiped by. “I don’t speak at meetings because I listen. If I have questions that don’t pertain to the group I speak with the appropriate people offline.” If I’m staring at my phone during a meeting it is because I’m keeping notes as I was told a notepad in meetings was frowned upon. I have seen the rest of the team do the same. And again, if people are having issues with me why is this the first time I’m hearing of it?” My friend’s supervisor had the same question, but if you are black in a largely white corporate space you already know the answer.

In the midst of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) programs implemented by many companies and corporations, there are marginalized hires who have to navigate a corporate culture that, while consciously wants to be better, or at least appear to be, subconsciously falls back into the comforts of privilege. Often marginalized hires, especially black ones, end up feeling like sherpas leading a caravan to an unwanted destination. To be clear, when diversity and inclusion are the topics at hand black people feel every eyeball.

When my friend’s supervisor realized that this was the first time she had heard about any concern with her “demeanor” she was unhappy and, I would hope, embarrassed. She had essentially been set up to do the “dirty” work. To confront my friend. To intimidate her into assimilation. Because again, consciously the added diversity was welcomed. Subconsciously, competent black professionals bring discomfort and intimidation.

For many blacks in corporate spaces, there is a story arc to their employment. Act one, black employee is excited to contribute to the success of their team and the company as a whole. They work hard and provide input and ideas at meetings. Their presence and input are generally considered positives. Act two, after some time passes and the veneer of newness wears away, their contributions in meetings begin to be ignored or co-opted by others on the team. Same idea phrased slightly different. They may or may not be pulled into a meeting with their supervisor to discuss “team dynamics” or “fit”. Act three, black employee fades into the background. They say little because they know they won’t be heard or considered. They do enough work to “get by” and focus on maintaining their paycheck, abandoning thoughts of advancement. Eventually, they either move on of their own accord or are let go in order to “move in another direction”.

Now, understand that while I am speaking specifically about blackness this can apply to any marginalized people. I am simply speaking from my experience and understanding. People of color, non-males, LBGTQIA, and the differently abled are subject to these same challenges and frustrations as “culture” is dictated by the majority.

Hiring a diverse workforce is the easy part, or at least it should be. Creating environments that consider various backgrounds is where the real work lies. Jamming round pegs into square holes can be just as damaging as not picking up the round peg at all. And as much as looking to marginalized hires to light the way to actual diversity might make sense on the surface it can’t be our responsibility to assume. We cannot effect change in a system that we don’t own.

This, typically, is the part of the essay where the writer proffers a solution. Preferably in neat little bullet points. But the truth is when it comes to dealing with race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability the world doesn’t work that way. So why should we assume there is a neat little guide for businesses? What I can say is that intention, self-reflection, and understanding go a long way in creating comfortable and productive environments for all.

My friend, thankfully, has managed to keep her job. She faced no repercussion for her perceived slights. There was also no correction for those who believed that they might have been slighted. It was a triggering event that ultimately got swept under the rug. For the culture.

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