Angela is a young, talented accounting professional who was highly sought after by many public accounting firms. Well known in college and in her local accounting association, she was recruited by the Chicago office of a large national firm.
Coming from Georgia, and without many relationships in the area, she found relocating to a larger city overwhelming. Though her new team worked closely together (often in the same conference room for long hours), she wasn’t able to make strong connections with her coworkers.
She struggled to adapt to the corporate culture and felt like an outsider during non-work conversations about Big 10 football. Being the only woman and the only person of color on the team, she decided her best move was to focus on mastering the technical aspects of her role.
Angela began seeking separate spaces to work, where group conversation was less distracting. But as a result, she inadvertently isolated herself from the team. As the social gap grew larger, she stopped lunching with the team too. Despite best intentions and solid work product, something wasn’t clicking. Angela began considering whether she should resign and return to Georgia.
Minority experiences in the workplace
Angela’s experience is just one example of how minorities in corporate America can feel like strangers in a strange land.
Relationship building is an essential skill in many careers, and it comes from authentic conversations that expose similarities and differences in upbringing, family histories, finances, college experience and other forces that affect our expectations and behavior. The resulting social interactions tend to bond people with similar experiences.
On the other hand, those with dissimilar experiences may not feel comfortable sharing their unique experiences, lest they brand themselves as outsiders. Holding back on their authentic selves to “fit in” ultimately has the opposite effect, creating greater distance from their coworkers.
Given that white men are the majority in many high-profile industries (finance, law, engineering, etc.), this human preference for similarity tends to work against women and racial/ethnic groups.
Minority employees who focus solely on performance fail to immerse themselves in the corporate culture. This keeps them from finding connection points and adding their own contributions to the collective culture. The result is a seemingly endless period of social awkwardness and a lack of authentic relationships with co-workers—relationships that could advance both their careers and their sense of inclusion.
Unique skills are needed and mentoring is not enough
While it is tempting to argue that the majority should be more inclusive, the reality is more complicated. Even if employees want to be inclusive, many lack the skills and self-awareness to resist the instinctual preference for similar people. They may even feel like their minority peers are actively pushing them away by talking so much about how they are different.
And while employers can offer diversity and inclusion training to employees, this same effect can occur with clients, undermining a minority employee’s performance.
In the end, unfair or not, minority employees are left with the responsibility to develop more advanced skills for creating cross-group relationships. They must:
- Control their own preference for similar others and actively engage with dissimilar colleagues.
- Develop strategies to counteract their colleagues’ instincts by authentically highlighting similarities without hiding important differences.
This is no small challenge, and the energy involved can be draining, leading to reduced job satisfaction and higher turnover. Mentors can help, but there are often too few to assist all the promising minority candidates. Furthermore, the additional burden of multiple mentorships can slow the mentor’s advancement.
Career coaching for diverse talent
Jeannine K. Brown, Life Meets Work career coach, has been tackling these issues for the past 12 years. Coming out of the public accounting industry, she has provided career coaching for many minority employees who struggled to find their place in corporate America. In her work, she has identified several ways minority employees benefit from having a career coach:
- Accountability: Coaching participants report back to their coaches. Having someone following your progress keeps you invested in the work, even when it’s tempting to let your efforts slide.
- Honest feedback: Diversity issues can be difficult to discuss with peers. Asking people to explain their behavior can easily go to the wrong place. Coaches provide an opportunity to explore diversity-related experiences and get honest feedback about the significance of an event—without fear of offending a leader or colleague. Coaches also a safe place to release frustration or disappointment before pursuing a constructive strategy.
- Test strategies: Coaches help participants develop responses to their experience; bouncing around ideas and providing insight on how a coworker might respond.
- Access to a different perspective: The desire to be around similar others extends to minorities as well, and their usual advisors will likely echo an employee’s feelings. Coaches with different backgrounds, or those who coach a diverse group of clients, can offer alternative perspectives for a participant to draw from.
A better outcome
During coaching sessions, Jeannine helped Angela recognize that her isolation was self-imposed and she should communicate her concerns to her managers. When she did, they helped her realize that while working together for long hours was taxing, it was also an opportunity to contribute to both the work and social conversations and gain valuable relationship-building skills.
Over the course of a few weeks, Angela transformed her interactions with the team. She began learning more about Big 10 football but also added SEC football into the conversation. Soon she and her colleagues had developed a fun-filled rivalry during the college championship game. Angela remains with the firm, performs at the top of her intake class, and has since been promoted to manager.