Sunday, July 10, 2011

I try very hard to act brown but sometimes they make me act BLACK!

by today’s Urban Chameleon contributor

My mother always said, “You are different, you don't play by the same rules.” These are words I live by, especially since I work in corporate America.

Last week I had my semi-annual review. Things were going really well until my boss went over his hand written notes about my "Opportunities for Improvement." His list included arriving to meetings early and not just on time, and to stop bringing reading materials to meetings (regardless if it’s related to my profession and even if everyone else brings other work to the same meetings). His issues were so reflective of corporate America, never mind that I’m excellent at my job, a top seller who always comes to meetings prepared, it always comes down to what makes everyone else “comfortable.”

Just as I was preparing to leave his office, assuming the meeting was over, my boss says, “Just one more thing.” Apparently, someone told him my behavior was “unpolished and unprofessional” in a question and answer session that we recently had with the CEO, CFO and Chairman of the board. In that moment it took every fiber of my being not to show him what unpolished and unprofessional looked like.

Frankly, I was shocked. The Chairman of the Board actually approached me after the session, asked how long I had been with the company and said it was nice to meet me. I later sent an email to the CEO, CFO, and Chairman of the Board thanking them for the Q&A session and invited them to lunch to show my appreciation. The CEO followed up, and we have a lunch scheduled for next month. My co-workers thought I was crazy, but I saw it as an expression of appreciation…and like I said, I'm damn good at my job.

My boss said he wasn’t concerned about the “unpolished and unprofessional” behavior, but it did have to be addressed. After the conclusion of my review, I approached our Director of Diversity, my corporate barometer, which helps me balance being a professional Black woman and navigating the tumultuous waterways of "white corporate America". She was in the in the room during the Q&A session. I recounted the details of my review, including the "unpolished and unprofessional" behavior, and she asked what I thought? For a second it crossed my mind that maybe I am unpolished and unprofessional if she had to ask. She told me it’s not the content of what I say but that my delivery sometimes comes across as overly familiar when addressing executives. I tend to address them in the same manner as my other colleagues. This is what I was being reprimanded for? With a smile on my face, I told her this is something I am very proud of. I treat executives the same way I treat housekeeping. I believe that everyone should be treated equal.

It is true that I didn't speak in the same subservient tone as my Caucasian counterparts. It is true that I didn't look up at the corporate ladder with wide eyes like a puppy dog waiting to be patted on the head and given a begging strip from the treat bowl. I'm sorry that your millions do not impress me. I'm sorry that I will never allow myself to treat you in a manner that would suggest that you are better than me. I will look at any CEO, CFO and Chairman of the board straight in the eye and talk to them as an equal. While my mother used to stress that I am different and have to play the game by different rules, including work twice as hard, it was always tempered with respecting myself, being myself, and realizing that everyone is equal in the eyes of GOD.

I try my hardest to act brown but today they almost made me act black. Ultimately, I accepted the company’s offer to pay for me to have “professional” coaching. I embrace conscientious improvement but in no uncertain terms will I allow my personality, my essence, and my “Je ne sais quoi” to be coached away.

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  1. What an honest recanting of a real life tale, this experience resonates with me. Keep writing!

  2. wow - how funny. this is one of the main reasons i find corporate culture to be so dysfunctional in most instances. the decision to work in a corporate setting often includes the implied decision that you will suspend your everyday way of being and interacting for some alternate reality in which unwritten (and often artificial) rules and protocols govern your every action. so, the ceo you might bump into in wal-mart and interact with simply as a guy buying toilet paper, becomes a sort of demi-god in a corporate setting, and anyone who does not prostrate him/herself before the demi-god is, well... an unpolished and unprofessional heathen.

    thankfully though, not all corporate cultures are as rigid. some actually encourage collegial interactions among all levels of the company - from long-time executive to fresh-out-of-school new hire. but the feedback / review session is always the most telling when it comes to finding out what sort of behavior your company REALLY expects and what sort of values they're just pretending to uphold.