Overcoming Bias in the Workplace

Work ethic was important in my family. Most of my family members did not work in a corporate environment; they were what are commonly called blue-collar workers. My parents taught me to work twice as hard as the other guy and perform twice as well.

Additionally, they taught me to get to work on time, look and dress the part, and let me know that hard work would get me promoted. These are values and beliefs that we also passed down and instilled in our kids.

While working in Corporate America, though, I learned that working hard didn’t teach me how to advocate for myself nor promote my accomplishments. I learned early in my career not to take a passive approach. At times, I had to be my own advocate, but I never talked about what I did, just what my team did. I might talk about how developed they are, who’s ready for promotion, what our results have been, and so on.

Because I led them, they were a reflection of me (a concept I learned in the military). If a team is delivering, developing, and getting promoted, someone is behind that; it’s not just happening by accident.

One Undisputed Reality

Yet the indisputable reality is that you can work hard and advocate for yourself all day long, but if you are a minority, you’re often going to face additional barriers. Today’s Diversity and Inclusion programs are working hard to eliminate those barriers, but there’s still a long way to go. 

I think race was a factor in my career when I started in 1993 with Kraft. However, I made up my mind not to let my ethnicity, color, or the company define me. I made it my mission to outwork and outshine everyone. In most cases, I was the first one in the office and the last one to leave. 

During the mid-90s at Kraft, diversity hiring was a top priority. I believe Kraft was a trailblazer and leader in diversity, particularly in the Food/Consumer Packaged Goods Industry. Kraft had very few employees who were people of color when I was hired. Of the handful that were hired, most were African American; very few, if any, were Latino, Asian, or Indian. As a result, Kraft focused their hiring practices on bringing in a broader spectrum of qualified people of color.

We had a strong business case for diversity and did a great job supporting a diverse work environment. However, at this time, minorities could only go so far up the career ladder, and a chance at shattering the glass ceiling was nearly impossible. If you worked hard, performed at a high level, and consistently delivered great results, you were well on your way to make it to Mid-level Manager, but you would likely never reach the next level or positions of greater responsibility.

3 Negative Biases

I felt that being the only minority on the team or in the room gave me the opportunity to show my skills and abilities. I saw it as a chance to show I could compete with the best, stand out, and shine in the spotlight. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to be a role model for others, even though it was a lot of pressure on me and a heavy burden to bear at that time. 

There were undoubtedly some negative biases that I had to overcome:

  1. The Prove It Again Bias – I did a great job and delivered results once, but could I do it consistently? I felt that because of the color of my skin, some people thought my success was a fluke that couldn’t be repeated. So I had to constantly prove it over and over again.
  2. The Tightrope Bias – I did not get the opportunities to fail or have a redo like other people, so I had a shorter rope. Other people had more freedom to try and fall short, but not me. Again, I felt this pressure due to the color of my skin. I couldn’t afford to fail and get away with it because my rope was kept tighter.
  3. The All Eyes Are on Me Bias – I felt like I was being watched all the time. As a result, I had to bring my A-game every day. I felt like if I didn’t look busy, people would think I wasn’t essential. So no one ever saw me just drinking my coffee and wandering down the hall. Even when I used the restroom, I tried to look like I was going somewhere important so no one would think I was slacking. I was being watched because of who I was, and I had to learn to live with that reality. 

For the most part, people in my friend circle embraced diversity; we were raised in diverse communities and had a progressive mindset. For example, one of my close white male friends was the Plant Manager in California.

We discovered we both came from humble beginnings: him from the projects in Brooklyn, New York, and me from rural Mississippi. We both worked hard to get our positions. 

While he acknowledged that, as a white male, he likely had fewer obstacles to deal with, he did find himself feeling frustrated and overlooked when the company began to embrace diversity hiring as a top priority.

However, he shared with me that he learned to focus on what he could control and to give up worrying about things beyond his control. That was wisdom I took to heart and returned to again and again. 

Even to this day, it’s some of the best wisdom I can give people who think the deck is stacked against them—focus on what you can control.

The question is: did you know you’re the CEO of your own career?

Check out my book The Company Doesn’t Love You.

Photo credit: By Matti Blume – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79787062