Do the work experiences of white and black professionals — whether they’re employed in the legal, corporate, financial, or accounting fields — differ greatly from one another?
Recently, we shared a story retold by Sharon Meit Abrahams, Director of Professional Development and Diversity & Inclusion for the international law firm Foley & Lardner and a frequent speaker and writer, that illustrated that yes, the work experiences of white and black professionals in fact, can be quite different.
In honor of February being Black Heritage Month, we expand on this question, and offer some solutions that could keep the systemic biases that drive certain workplace experiences from derailing careers of young black professionals and hinder the genuine attempts at racial and ethnic inclusion that many organizations strive for.
Abrahams tale, presented at a recent conference, details the different experiences had by a white and a black male lawyer who both started on the same day. “These two associates were hired on the same day in the same department in the same practice group and in the same office and should have had the same work experience, she added. “But they didn’t.”
Indeed, online commentators’ reaction to our publication of this story showed that it strongly resonated with attorneys and professionals outside of the law. “This article should be read by every lawyer, of any race or gender, working in any law firm [with more than] 50 lawyers,” one lawyer commented. “Firms believe that their D&I programs are working but all they are doing is acting as a revolving door for young attorneys of color and women.”
In addition, some commenters described how these same experiences were repeating themselves at accounting firms, corporations, and financial firms across the country. “And when the lawyers are done reading [this article], they should pass it on to every CPA, investment banker, and corporate executive,” suggested one black CPA professional.
Differing experiences across race
Indeed, some of the ways in which the two associates’ experiences differed were stark, Abrahams explained, and included variances in work assignments and mentoring. For example, she explained, the white associate was given work matters allowed him to hone and develop skills he would need for future career advancement. The black associate noted that he was not getting that type of work, and as a result, his skills remained undeveloped in certain, important areas. Worse yet, the black associate knew this under-development would likely impede his career advancement in the future.
Abrahams said that she knows from her own experience in doing exit interviews that the black associate’s experiences were not occurring in isolation. “If a person is stuck on a document review for the first three years of their career, when another third-year associate is already doing work — such as drafting documents on the transactional side and doing depositions on the litigation side — the skill trajectory is completely different,” Abrahams noted.
Similarly, the black and white associates had very different experiences when it came to interact with their group leaders or finding a mentor or sponsor within the firm to help advance their careers. (The ideal mentoring experience for a lawyer is having someone to help them learn what the rules — both written and unwritten — are in the practice and teach the associate how to differentiate themselves in order to get the good work assignments.)
Sometimes, however, firms put people together who are alike — the white associate gets a white mentor and the black associates get a black mentor. But if black mentors, for reasons of facing similar internal biases, don’t know the unwritten rules, such as how to build a reputation or how to keep your plate of work full, then they can’t pass that along to the new associate.
“In my exit interviews, I cannot tell you how many diverse attorneys say to me, ‘I had no champion,’ — someone who was using their clout to help me move forward and get the great cases,” Abrahams said.
Working on solutions to this inequity
So, what are the solutions to bridging the gap between the experiences of white and black young professionals in the workplace?
For starters, all organizations — whether law firms, accounting firms, corporations, or financial firms — need to acknowledge and address certain structural barriers to encourage more equitable experiences of employees, no matter their differences.
For example, work assignments and training needs to be monitored so every individual receives quality work that develops needed skills. Far too many organizations have an informal work assignment system, also known as a free market system, that assumes that all individuals start out on equal footing. But for many young professionals of color, they are the first in family to go to law school or business school and may not have access to those connections from family and friends that can educate them in navigating an organization.
Also, coveted work assignments — such as being including in a pitch process with a client — should always be doled out evenly. And if the organization wins the work, including the individual in that work also, is a crucial step in building confidence of young professionals and instills essential future skills. “A classroom pitch 101 is great and wonderful,” Abrahams explained. “But until you actually see it demonstrated live, you don’t really know.”
Further, formal mentoring programs must have a check-in process after pairs are assigned. Organizations need to understand that their obligation to providing equal, quality opportunities in mentoring go beyond simply assigning a mentor. The organization must do check-ins to see how the relationship is going; and the formalized mentoring program must be well managed with follow-up times built in. In particular, mentoring across racial, gender, or ethnic differences must be carefully managed.
The value of inclusion
As Black Heritage Month comes to a close this week, it’s important to reflect on the value of inclusion, whether in assigning work matters, training and mentoring, or just simply in ensuring that the experiences of all employees, not matter their race, ethnicity or other differences, are similar and encourage a feeling of belonging and membership in the larger group and organization.
Only by addressing these inherent biases can organizations drive them out and keep the careers of young black professionals on the same track as their white colleagues.