D|I|B - The Perception & Reality of Plantation-like Working Conditions

Setting the Stage

As part of an optional activity for executives participating in one of my masterminds, they were asked to listen to an album and reflect on it over the weekend preceding the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The title of the album was Africa to America: The Journey of the Drum by a group called The Sounds of Blackness.

Background Information

One individual, a white male, SVP, who had been with the company since his early 20s and rose through the ranks rather quickly, found that one song, Sun Up to Sundown, resonated with him concerning his organization. The lyrics were as follows: Sun up to sundown pickin dat cotton | Sun up to sundown whipped by the massa | Sun up to sundown chains and shackles No more auction block for me…

The personal “ah-ha” moments he had after listening to this song translated into powerful insights about what his Black employees may have experienced at one time or another. This ability to reframe his perception of the organization based on the perspective of his Black employees demonstrated that all our candid discussions at the executive level about the variety of lived experiences of Black employees were resonating with him.

The Challenge

His first reaction was hoping his Black employees wouldn’t identify at all with the lyrics above in relation to their positions at the company. He reflected that,

“In no way in my lifetime did I ever want to be compared to a “massa,” but the purpose of DIB is to get real. We have a large population of Black employees as a percent of our total population, but we are sorely lacking requisite Black presence at the managerial and individual contributor level within Operations.

Our frontline Black employees are “pickin dat cotton” in the form of building products and providing services for our customers, they typically work for white male or other non-Black male supervisors (“massas”), and the “chains and shackles” are brought on by the lack of investment in their growth and our poor performance as leaders in helping them gain the skill and experience necessary to move into higher level positions to better provide for their families.

While there is job security (“no more auction block for me”) there isn’t a lot of hope. There’s a predestination involved that they are going to stay in the work they are in, benefitting the company greatly, but not sharing equitably with other employee groups in terms of getting a fair share for their families. As much as it pains me to say it, it feels pretty Antebellum.”

The Approach

Shortly after sharing his reflections with me, he decided to host a series of open forum discussions with the Black employees across his organization to hear about their experiences at the company with the intention of identifying opportunities to “right the wrongs” by not providing chances to advance through the ranks to greater levels of responsibility with higher salaries.

The Outcomes

One individual, who had previously been considered for a promotion and then denied for having been involved in a client situation that did not end well (along with a white male counterpart who was primarily responsible for the situation, yet was promoted shortly after), finally received the promotion he deserved. While his white male counterpart had been promoted 7 years prior, despite sharing responsibility for the incident that negatively impacted the Black employee, the Black employee was finally promoted into a position that he had earned several times over yet had been passed over by this SVP, for which he apologized and vowed to look for, and correct, other missed opportunities that happened under his leadership.