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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. The intention was to identify opportunities to "clear the roadbloacks" brought on by not providing enough chances to advance through the ranks to greater levels of responsibility with higher salaries. 

The Outcomes

Through this education, he became much more aware of his primary role in making certain these roadblocks were identified and addressed. When faced with a question from a peer about why a certain black employee with great potential had not yet become a senior manager, he made a major misstep by bringing up a quality issue from the past as a reason the employee was still in their current role. Upon further reflection, he realized he had just brought out the “chains and shackles.” The black employee in question was no more responsible than many other stakeholders for the problem, but the leader’s reaction and explanation had illustrated higher hurdles for the black employee. He found himself thinking, “would I have said the same thing if the question had been about one of the other people involved?” 

One thing was different this time on the heels of the DIB journey and the learnings and discovery that came with it. After a few minutes passed, he realized he had made a big mistake, and the past few months had taught him that these missteps are an opportunity to learn and act. He went back to the peer and apologized, saying he was wrong, and there was no good reason that employee had not been promoted. He also sought out the employee directly and told him the whole story so he could apologize and guarantee that he would personally make sure that the incorrect perception and message to the peer would not hold him back. He took a vested interest in sponsorship of the team member and helped counsel and coach him with frequent conversations to seek out opportunity and reach new career goals. The employee was just promoted into a very high profile, vital position focused on the growth and belonging of the rest of the corporate family. Awareness matters and the SVP’s DIB journey created the awareness necessary to acknowledge both the systemic issues present and his personal misstep and the courage to act and push for positive change to both.

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