Being the only black person working in an office environment can be challenging, and very intimidating; but does it have to be that way? I was in that situation for over 25 years , and while many things in the workplace have changed for the better; being the only black in the office still gives most of us a lot of anxiety. I know personally how tricky and scary it can be. Corporate America severely lacks in diversity, there are only 5 black CEO’s at Americas 500 biggest companies .
During my career, I have experienced everything from racism and passive aggression, to not being invited to office functions, and being overlooked for promotions. I could have easily quit, but I didn’t. I have also had great experiences and a lot of fun as the only black in the office because I understood my environment, was confident, and I knew I brought something to the table. There are things that you can do to make your work experience better, and not only survive but thrive.
The 5 tips listed below helped me to excel as the only black in the office. I am sharing them with you in hopes that they will help you to do the same.
1. Earn Respect: This is done by being professional in every way, and setting a positive tone from the outset. You only get one chance to make a first impression. This sounds simple enough, but if you show up acting and dressed unprofessionally, no one will respect you. Watch what you say and be careful when playing around with co-workers. Never allow anyone to make racially sensitive or sexually explicit comments to you, even in jest. If you allow it once you have signed up for it to happen over and over again. Your boss and co-workers respect is something you have to earn if you are going to be successful.
2. Be Punctual: That’s right; we have all heard the jokes about black people being late for everything. This is no laughing matter; no one wants a teammate who is not dependable, and no employer wants an employee who is habitually late. Showing up early for work gives you an advantage over those who don’t. Most occupations require some preparation before the work day starts; from starting a shift as a server in a restaurant, to running your own company; showing up early gives you the opportunity to prepare and be ready to go when it’s show time.
3. Lose the Attitude: You were hired because management saw something in you. You do not have to be aggressive and intimidating to everyone in the office to prove your worth. You and your co-workers are equal; you only have to prove yourself to your boss. I have seen some blacks automatically assume they are under attack, or that they must prove something to everyone in the office. I felt this way when I first entered the white collar work force too. Please give your co-workers the benefit of the doubt until they prove you wrong. There is no need to create beef where there is none. Avoid being thin skinned, sensitive and emotional about things, and avoid contentious conversations; especially about politics and religion.
4. Work Hard and Seek Improvement: I really don’t know when the stigma of being lazy became associated with black people, but it permeates throughout the workplace. Considering this country was largely built on black labor it is almost absurd that many still feel this way. As the only black worker in the office you will receive some scrutiny. Work hard, find a mentor, ask questions, seek improvement, and show interest in your work. A mentor can be a big help with getting you acclimated, and assist with your transition.
5. Be Yourself: When a company interviews you they are looking for the right person and the right fit. I have seen black co-workers morph into someone else once they are hired. I had one black co-worker buy a Harley Davidson motorcycle, start dipping tobacco, and started listening to country music to fit in with his white co-workers. Everyone laughed at him behind his back! Like I said earlier; you were hired because of what you as an individual brought to the company. Don’t try to become someone else just to fit in.
My experiences as the only black in the office have been mostly positive because of my attitude, and my desire to succeed. Most people only care about productivity, and the bottom line. When you do your job, and work hard your co-workers will eventually look past your skin color and begin to value you as part of the team. There will always be some that will never accept or want anything to do with you, and that’s ok. You are better off without them, and you will still have opportunities to be successful like everyone else.