Wish You Were Here
Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: April/May 2009
Risking Your Job or Losing Your Soul?
By: Michael Bennett

"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you its got about 18 million cracks in it." Former presidential candidate, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threw down the gauntlet for future generations of women in one of the most transcendent moments of political theater in this nation's history.

Secretary Clinton then closed ranks with the man who actually smashed the proverbial glass ceiling, President Barack Obama. While 2008 was a watershed year on the political front, that solid glass wall of resistance remains a real impediment to the hopes and dreams of thousands of women and minorities in corporate America. And on the rare, albeit slowly improving occasion when a person of color or a woman achieve executive or boardroom status, they carry the unrealistic hopes and dreams of their particular gender, racial or ethnic group with them.

Many African-Americans have pinned their hopes and dreams on the success or failure of President Obama. That's unfair to the president, yet this man carries that burden, because as I'm sure he understands, it goes with the territory.

In corporate America the air remains thin for Black executives. In many cases it's taken decades for some to obtain a level of success they were qualified for years sooner. Our industry is somewhat complicit in shattered dreams, with less than ten African-American running the nation's 500 plus convention and visitors bureaus. And like President Obama, Black executives often carry the burden of expectations for our entire race - again, it goes with the territory.

Every promotion opportunity that hitches itself to another wagon forces us to question whether it was our qualifications or discrimination. It's a reflex based on decades of discrimination. Then we turn to the Black executive, fairly or unfairly for answers. As many minorities already know, waiting for corporate America to change some of their discriminatory behavior is like setting a building on fire and calling an arsonist to put it out.

A byproduct of success is a great salary and all the creature comforts that go with being near the big corner office. With the Black executive you can add the expectation of change. Depending on the organization, Black executives find themselves as one of the few, if not the only African-American in the upper echelons of management. Can they change discriminatory behavior by themselves or is their mere presence enough?

High on their perch as the minority face of the executive team they've begun to notice a pattern of discrimination. Growth and promotion opportunities being made available by the company are not being offered equally to all employees.

Not only do they notice the shortfall in equal opportunity, but also in today's tough economic climate they observe a disproportionate number of minorities being tossed out on the street. It begs several questions. How does management decide who gets the pink slip? Are your observations true discrimination? If so, how do you prove it? That old adage, you'll know it when you see it, doesn't work in a corporate culture where the burden of proof often falls heavily on the accuser.

One of my family members works in the hospitality industry and was recently laid off after 23 years in favor of a slew of lesser-qualified individuals. At first we thought it was her higher salary, then upon further investigation we realized it might be a discriminatory issue based on age, race and gender. The company she worked for recognized the error of their ways and reversed course only to send her packing just two days later claiming they mistakenly brought back too many people. Does she have a case?

Black executives who have reached the upper echelons of corporate America often find themselves in a moral bind over discrimination. What should they do if they observe bigotry and discriminatory practices in their workplace? Should they blow the whistle? Should they remain silent? Should they quietly try to influence a behavioral change behind the scenes? Should they fall on the sword for others?

According to Vikita Poindexter, a human resource professional and owner of Poindexter Consulting Group, it is illegal to fire an employee for speaking out on workplace discrimination. It's also illegal for an employer to fire an employee during any investigation of workplace discrimination. But that doesn't mean the whistleblower won't suffer no matter their lofty position. Executives have a way of exacting revenge without actually firing someone. Prestigious assignments are taken away or promotions are denied to name a few.

I can hear many of my African-American friends now who think the silence of their brother or sister in management is actually condoning discriminatory behavior. They grow resentful and turn their back on the person they previously revered if they don't fight discrimination at all cost.

In the late 1990s, a wonderful opportunity came my way to produce programs for a major cable network. The opportunity for growth and advancement were tremendous. I thought I had the inside track on one of the positions due to my personal and professional relationship with the host of the program.

Interviews were arranged with the executive team. The first interview went great, with the promise to expect a follow up call. As promised I was called for a second, third, forth and fifth interview. In the meantime, several of my friends and co-workers at the time were also being interviewed. All were hired after just two interviews, six people in total.

The obvious questions started to settle into my subconscious. Was I being discriminated against? Had I interviewed poorly? I had a higher skill set than everyone hired. How did I know this? I worked with all of them and had some input into their performance evaluations at our employer.

Weeks passed. I received a call from the same organization for a sixth interview. I had never met or heard of the person who reached out to me for this final interview. Much to my surprise, when I arrived at their offices, a secretary escorted me to the same office I sat in the previous five times, but the occupant was a highly intelligent African-American woman. Alicia (not her real name) was the new supervising producer. Her hiring was not only a result of her top-notch skills as a producer, but she had a personal and professional relationship with the executive producer.

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