The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has hit black Americans disproportionately hard, making their return to the job market even more difficult.
While the unemployment rate for white workers dropped to 12.4% in May, the rate climbed to 16.8% for black worker the same month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, black unemployment has been consistently higher than for whites.
One reason is discrimination that black job applicants often encounter. One study found that black workers who “whitened” their resumes by deleting references to their race were two and a half more times more likely to get a call back than those who left those details in, according to a 2018 Administrative Science Quarterly paper.
Cashay asked Dorianne St Fleur, a career development coach and racial equity consultant, Solange Lopes, a career coach, and Latesha Byrd, a career and business coach, about the challenges that black job applicants face when looking for a job and growing their careers.
Cashay: What are the biggest challenges when starting your career and what is the best way to deal with them?
Dorianne: The biggest challenges when starting your career stems from lack of clarity. Having a clear career vision is a fundamental key when it comes to career success, and often when you’re just starting out it can be hard to get a firm grasp of what direction you should go in.
My advice is to give yourself the time and space you need to figure things out. It’s just as important to understand what you don’t want out of your career as it is to know what you do want. Use the first year or so of your career to experiment and try new things. Say yes to relocating to a new city. Say yes to leading the project on a topic you have limited experience in. Take a risk.
Solange: As a woman of color, some of the biggest challenges I encountered when starting my career included dealing with the emotional and psychological tax and impostor syndrome created by the lack of diversity and inclusiveness. Part of this emotional and psychological tax also included dealing with micro-aggressions and exclusion. The opportunities for sponsorship and mentorship were also limited, making it challenging to get the guidance and support others seemed to have.
Hindsight being 20/20, the best way to deal with these, in my opinion, is to pay particular attention to one’s mental health and work at moving past the feeling of impostor syndrome. Micro-aggressions have to be proactively and directly addressed as learning and growing opportunities for all parties involved. Lastly, looking for mentorship and sponsorship opportunities early on in one’s career goes a long way.
Latesha: The biggest challenges I believe are finding your voice in a new environment, building intentional relationships with leadership and managing new responsibilities while building the skills to carry them out. The best way to deal with is to soak up as much as information as possible about the company, the culture, leadership and start formulating relationships by setting up meetings with those that can help you get acclimated to the company.
It's also best to establish and understand expectations and priorities within your role. I'd recommend putting together a 30-, 60- and 90-day plan.
Cashay: What are the most common obstacles to career growth and what can people of color do to overcome them?
Dorianne: The most common obstacle to career growth for people of color is lack of support. As a person of color, you’re less likely to be interviewed by, managed by, and on teams with people who look like you. This, coupled with the pervasive bias (some unconscious, some not) that exists in most workplaces across America, means you can find yourself in environments where you’re getting little to no career support.
If you’re in a situation like this, make a list of all the specific ways you’d like support in your career. Want access to stretch opportunities? Assistance navigating a challenging group dynamic? Support going up for promotion? Bring your direct asks and expectations to your manager so you can come to an agreement on how to proceed.
Solange: The most common obstacles to career growth for women of color are tied in with the unavailability of opportunities for advancement, lack of mentorship/sponsorship, and toxic work environments. The lack or unavailability of opportunities for career growth for women of color makes it extremely challenging to progress and reach much-deserved higher levels of leadership and influence.
This is why it is so important to identify organizations that offer suitable opportunities for growth and advancement. This is where finding the right fit, in terms of company, team and environment, makes a world of difference. Being proactive about finding mentors and sponsors is also crucial.
Latesha: It's important to use your voice to self-advocate, being intentional about sharing your career goals. I encourage my clients to think about what their career plan is, what skills they need to develop and the type of projects they'd like to work on to achieve their goals. Share that with your managers and hold your company accountable to helping you get to where you'd like to be.
Cashay: How important is mentorship in that process? How can one find the right mentor?
Dorianne: Mentorship is a critical part of the career growth process because it gives you an opportunity to have someone provide you with the customized, relevant advice to help you navigate your career journey. I recommend having multiple mentors at a time to help with the varying aspects of your career, like managing up, building your strategic network, and public speaking.
You’ll find that as you progress through your career, the kind of guidance you’ll need will change. To find a good mentor, pay attention to those who have already achieved what you’re looking to achieve or those who are really good in an area you’re looking to improve in. Once you’ve identified a mentor, focus on finding ways to build genuine rapport.
Solange: Mentorship plays a crucial role in this, as many, if not most women of color, are deprived of the guidance, insight and support to develop, network and flourish in their careers. Finding the right mentor is a matter of identifying someone whose careers and even personality you’re inspired by and want to emulate, whether in your organization, industry or in an unrelated area.
This is more a matter of finding a trusted advisor than sticking to a specific company or industry. However, in the absence or scarcity of diversity, finding mentors to whom women of color can relate to, can be especially difficult.
Latesha: Mentorship is extremely important in your career because it's necessary to have someone you can truly confide in and look to for guidance when navigating the workplace. Typically your mentor is someone whose been in your shoes years ago and are able to provide some tangible advice to help with communication, relationship building, conflict relations and advocacy from within.
Cashay: How to deal with the challenges in communication and collaboration with coworkers and management?
Dorianne: Breakdowns in communication and collaboration aren’t uncommon at work — when humans come together, we’re bound to encounter some level of friction. The key is to be strategic in how you navigate these challenges and approach them in a way that won’t alienate you from your coworkers or manager.
The first thing to do is isolate the cause of the challenge. Is it a factor of different communication styles? Micro-aggressive behavior? All of the above? Once you're clear on the root cause, you can come up with a strategic game plan to address it.
Solange: Dealing with challenges in communication and collaboration with co-workers and management can be like stepping on a landmine. From my experience, the first step is to address these directly with the other party involved and attempt to clear the air. However, there can be instances where that would backfire. This is when considering whether it is worthwhile to reach out to Human Resources becomes necessary. If things get really dicey, considering a professional exit may be the best bet.
Latesha: It's important to always understand what your team's goals are, and how your work plays a role and adds value to hitting these goals. Keep open lines of communications with coworkers, especially management by setting up recurring touch points. And I also think it's best to understand your coworkers’ strengths and weaknesses, so that you can either play into those strengths, or fill in the gaps.
Cashay: What can employees/employers do to make the workplace a better place for growth and development for people of color?
Dorianne: Instead of only focusing on the symptoms of an inequitable workplace (i.e. underrepresentation in hiring, higher retention, and lower promotion for people of color), employers should focus on creating HR/People systems that are intentionally and explicitly anti-racist. Every policy, practice, and process must be assessed with the lens of equity (not equality) to ensure that people of color have the same opportunities to grow and develop at the same rates as white people.
There are historical barriers for people of color — from the hiring process all the way through performance management — that have to be taken into account. Additionally, employers should commit to incentivizing leaders who are doing the work to create inclusive environments and exiting leaders who are actively (or passively) creating environments that erode a culture of inclusion.
Solange: One of the most powerful ways that employees can use to make the workplace a better place for the growth and development of people of color is to become allies. Employees can do this by committing to fostering diversity and inclusiveness, as well as by advocating for more diversity through more diverse recruitment pools and hiring.
Employees can also serve as mentors and sponsors for people of color in their organization, and advocate for less inequity and injustice. They can also contribute to creating and/or changing the policies to reflect more diversity and equity.
Latesha: Ensure there is equity across advancement and promotion in the workplace, make sure they are getting the same visibility and exposure as white colleagues. When you look around and see no POC in leadership positions, don't be afraid to ask the question why? And what more can we do?
Provide access to mentorship. And create safe spaces for them so that they feel comfortable sharing and expressing their goals, or even concerns as they come.
Read more information and tips in our Advice section