Recognizing Workplace Foolishness
I have been out of college for nine years now and have spent much of that time attempting to build a work life with one worthy cause or another. I have probably worked or volunteered for more organizations than most people twice my age and the majority of my experience comes from working with non-profit organizations. My path started in college when I ended up on the office work track. During the academic year, I would work-study in one of the offices on campus and during the summer, I would temp for various organizations around Washington, D.C. By the time I graduated, I was thoroughly entrenched in the world of office dynamics and as the outsider looking in, started to learn how race, status, and cliques created unholy unions in the workplace.
I am no longer the outsider looking in but unfortunately, am still waiting for the light at the end of my observational tunnel when it comes to workplace dynamics. I am not sure if it is coming, but hope the chronicling of some of my experiences will help you all deal with your workplace foolishness. The next time you think maybe it’s you being crazy or unreasonable, remember there is a structure of spoken and unspoken institutionalized racism and classism as well as other factors that directly affect your work experiences, so you might not be that crazy or unreasonable after all.
Temping isn’t that tempting
My experiences temping laid the groundwork for unearthing much of what was amiss in the workplace and being hired as a full time employee uncovered the rest! Temp work is a double-edged sword. On one had you need a job and there is the possibility that your temp assignment might turn into a permanent position but the reality is, temping is set up solely for the benefit of the employer and the temp agency. The employer that hired the temp agency pays the agency $20 an hour for your labor, while the agency pays you $8 an hour. Not only are you easier to replace than the coffee filter, the employer never has to get their hands dirty when dealing with you.
I made the mistake of having a doctor’s appointment scheduled prior to accepting one temp assignment. When I told my supervisor, who was a black woman, that I needed to take a few hours off to go to the doctor, she agreed, then called the temp agency to request another temp! I received a call from the temp agency a few hours after I spoke to the employer letting me know it was my last day at that assignment. In addition to the employer not having the decency to inform me, the temp agency encouraged me not to talk to my employers about anything you would traditionally talk to your boss about. The agency told me to use them as the go between, therefore whatever I needed to convey to the employer should be done through the agency.
This is the beauty of temping from the employer perspective, the company you are assigned to never has to invest any time or benefits in you—no time off for sick leave or vacation, no payroll taxes, no energy to make sure you are a happy employee. They don’t even have to address issues with you. Their only responsibility is to pay the temp agency and in turn, the agency will supply them with a constant stream of workers regardless of the circumstance. This is the reason why the employer hired the temp agency, so their experience is less stressful.
After you spend four years in college and a lot of money to get your degree, you would think that just having a degree would give you the leg up you need. Unfortunately, my work experience has taught me that where you got your degree is just as important. Sadly enough, I have seen it repeatedly with multiple employers. On one of my first jobs out of college, the company was trying to either select interns or an entry level employee and would automatically put candidates that graduated from a school unknown to them, in this case primarily the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in the less qualified pool. It wasn’t even a covert practice! I have a very distinct memory of two employees trashing an applicant from University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which is a predominantly black school, solely based on the fact he or she went to Eastern Shore! It was at that point I realized the benefits of attending a white school. For all the crap I had to endure at Penn State, white employers looked at my PSU degree very favorably.
This trend repeated itself at another job where a part time employee (a white woman) was being paid more money to do the same work as the full time employee (a black woman) because the white woman had a Harvard degree. To this day, I do not understand how a part-time employee can be paid more money for doing the same work as the woman putting in a solid 40-hour week of quality work for the organization. It does not matter how high up the educational ladder you may have climbed, there are still employers ready to discount you because your school is not good enough for their tastes. Even when you have graduated from an accredited university, do not be surprised if your magnum laude is not worth as much as a C- average from Princeton.
Too often, employers pay what they think they can get away with instead of what your time and efforts or actually worth. Too often, the lowest paid employees do the most work for an organization! Sadly, this is a fact of life, but you can help yourself by being your own best advocate. Be leery of taking a lower salary for “the cause” because that same organization might just be paying your counterpart more money for the same work.
As demonstrated in the credentialing example above, my experience has taught me that if an employer thinks they can successfully pay you less and you will not catch wind of it or complain, your level of education, amount of work experience, or actual work hours have little to do with your salary. That is why so many companies frown on employees openly discussing salary. The best thing to do for yourself in any work environment is to advocate for the salary you deserve from the beginning. That way you have fewer regrets as time passes, as well as a better basis for raises.
The salary conversation can be a tricky one. Try to ask the employer what the range is for a position before they ask you your salary requirements. This is easier to do in an interview as opposed to an application that specifically asks for your salary requirements. If you do have to fill out your salary requirements before you get to the interview, give a salary range, not a specific number, for example, $60,000-$65,000. Do not make the mistake of starting with the salary you want because that salary could be much lower than what the company was willing to pay, but they will pay less if that was the request you made. Asking the employer to give you their range will also allow you to decipher if you were expecting a salary that is much higher than the range of the position. Even if an employer beats you to the punch in an in-person interview and asks what your salary requirements are, politely deflect and ask, “Well what is the salary range for this position?”
If the company has the resources or truly thinks you are the right person for the job, they are sometimes willing to go higher than their own stated salary range for a particular position. It can and does happen, it just depends on the person conducting the interview and if they believe you are worth it.
Favoritism happens everywhere. It happens at home with your parents (because we all know they do have a favorite child), it happens in class with your teachers (because they have favorite students), and it definitely happens in the workplace. In the workplace favoritism manifests itself in a few different ways, and just like the favorite child or student, the favored employee gets special treatment. All too often I have either witnessed or heard recounted tales of unqualified employees being hired or incompetent employees not being reprimanded and favoritism is usually lurking behind the scenes.
People want to work with someone they feel comfortable with; whether that means someone to enjoy have drinks after work with or a person that always has a sunny disposition. Unfortunately, this tends to be to the detriment of the most skilled and competent person for the job. Favoritism is at its most obvious when the person doing the hiring has developed or already had some kind of personal connection to the applicant. Who you know, and to a large extent, how well you network, plays a considerable part in the hiring process.
Favoritism is most obvious when certain employees ‘get away with’ certain behaviors, like not doing their job well. If you are well liked by the right people your errors and inadequacies are less glaring than the errors of someone who is not liked as much. This type of favoritism does not even have to come from a top down dynamic, and can be seen on a peer-to-peer level as well. Jenny can come to work late everyday and no one ever questions it but the day Robyn is 5-minutes late everyone notices, including the boss. Workplace favoritism often feels like you are back in high school—very cliquish—or on Project Runway—you are in or you are out. Either scenario defines the type of work experience you will have.
I believe a lot of this type of favoritism has to do with a person’s status within an organization and race does play into it. It is easier to see yourself in someone you have more in common with and since our society has not been particularly successful in enabling people to cross the color line comfortably, chances are you have more in common with someone of your own ethnicity. The tardiness example above is a good demonstration. If you are a single, white woman with a child you are most likely going to identify with Jenny, your single white co-worker who also has a child, and cut her some slack when she is late to work. It is much harder for you to identify with Robyn, who you hardly ever talk to anyway, so even if her bus was late she should have planned her schedule better to get to work on time.
All of this plays into perceptions of who is a hard-worker and who is not. I learned relatively early in my work life that people of color often needed to be twice as good as a white counterpart to be considered an equal, which automatically puts us at a disadvantage. You end up giving 200% but only getting credit for 100% ,so when you are no longer able to give that 200%, for whatever reason, it is looked down upon. People have already become accustomed to 200% so when you slip down to 175%, people think you are slacking. Too often, these perceptions are related to race.
The happy work place
It does exist! You might not think so from reading this article but you can find a happy work environment. There is no such thing as the perfect work environment or even the perfect boss, but you can find a good, supportive work environment and a boss who respects you.
People do make the workplace. I have been in work environments where I did not necessarily care for my job responsibilities but loved either my boss or co-workers so I stayed on board because it was a good environment. I have known people in work environments where they loved what they were doing, but had a horrible boss or were not too fond of there co-workers so they were eager to find a better workplace.
Lucky are those that find the combination of liking their actual job responsibilities, their coworkers, and their boss, all at the same time. Until that happens for you having the right attitude can at least help you cope with your work environment. Try to stay positive and remember something better really is around the corner, especially if you believe you deserve better.
Defining yourself based on where you work or what you do, can only lead to bad things. At any point, an employer can decide they do not need or want you anymore and you do not want that to shatter your definition of self. It is very rare that an employer actually has your best interest at heart, they were hired to keep the company’s best interest at the forefront, not yours, so it us up to you to make sure you have your best interests covered. Being in an environment that sucks the soul out of you is detrimental to your mental and physical health. If you are sitting at your desk crying, or are starting to doubt yourself, or are feeling depressed because of the negativity of your work environment, it’s time to move on and find a happy work place!