As the black owner of a hair salon with such celebrity clientele as Angela Bassett, Paula Patton, Phylicia Rashad, Diana Ross and others, Daisy Curbeon managed a staff of six hair stylists for more than 10 years. A former runway model, she had worked her way up from sweeping beauty shop floors to styling for the stars. After opening a salon on Manhattan’s posh Park Avenue, she ran into resistance from some of her own black employees, women who “dissed” her largely because of race.
“Because I’m a black boss, they thought they could come in late,” Curbeon said. “If they had some daddy-mama drama, they might not come in at all. You know, a white salon wouldn’t put up with that. But in a black salon, I’d have to deal with it and be sympathetic because I’m a black woman too.”
She added bitterly: “There was too much familiarity and lack of respect because of race. Familiarity breeds contempt. People try to fit in like family, and then it becomes a problem at work.”
Curbeon’s difficulties no doubt were partly due to her informal management style, but her experiences are not unique; they’re just not widely discussed—in public. In truth, many black managers don’t care to see themselves as too lenient on “their own,” so this “race secret” is glossed over among friends. And business school professors are only now scratching their heads, trying to develop theories on how to deal with this peculiar racial dilemma.
The New Power Brokers
The issue is especially pertinent today, though, because a new “black power” is taking shape nationwide, and black leaders are better positioned than ever to make hiring decisions, from the variety store to the boardroom to the corridors of political power. The nation now has 2 million black-owned businesses.
In addition, the nation has tens of thousands of black executives, several hundred black directors of Fortune 500 firms, 650 black mayors, a handful of black governors—and its first black President, a shrewd and savvy operator credited with running the finest campaign ever launched by a candidate for our highest office.
Despite this clout, blacks are suffering disproportionately in the Great Recession. According to September data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black male unemployment rose from 16.7% to 17.3%, compared to a rate increase of 8.8% to 8.9% for white males. Thus, black male unemployment is 94% higher than the rate for white men. The unemployment rate for black women rose from 12.9% to 13.2%, whereas white women did not see an increase.
African-Americans cannot afford to let insubordination serve as an excuse for not getting hired. Yet, it is a real, though mostly unspoken, concern among black bosses. While black–on-black disrespect on the job is hardly universal, it does occur when black employees use common racial bonds as a pass to excuse under-performance.
Slack performance can mean the difference between success and failure for black-run organizations, from barbershops and banks to charter schools and tech firms. Sabotaging a manager’s effectiveness could prevent a firm from winning new business, hamper overall work quality, or prevent a firm from gaining access to traditional pools of capital—and black-owned firms already face higher hurdles in this area than non-minority firms.
Off The Record, Here’s The Real Deal …
Many black executives won’t even discuss this issue “on the record” for fear of causing friction among employees, or because they’d just as soon keep the company spotlight off a hidden race problem, especially one in which they themselves might be enmeshed. Others are altruistic about their avoidance of this issue, saying that revealing this problem might put a damper on opportunities for blacks to climb the corporate hierarchy.
Off the record, however, these same black bosses and entrepreneurs can easily recall black-on-black impertinence, ranging from backtalk to a “do-it-yourself” demeanor that could be grounds for dismissal.
“An African-American manager asked his black subordinate to schedule travel arrangements,” a nonprofit executive confided. “The employee felt it could have been done by the manager. You could tell from her tone, which was entirely too familiar for the workplace. It’s challenging on the management side because you can’t respond as you would to a family member, and that’s where tension comes in. An African American manager needs to be able to lead in such a way that’s going to cultivate the support and respect he or she needs to get the job done.”
Some black managers are willing to ignore inappropriate acts of “racial familiarity.” “Sometimes we might not want to address it because we want to maintain an appearance of solidarity,” said Nicole R. Giles, acting executive director of the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
Giles was formerly employed as the only African-American manager at an arts and cultural organization in Philadelphia. While there, she hired the organization’s sole black intern. But Giles’s hire, a recent college graduate, ended up as the only intern who needed basic training in promptness.
“My intern came in late consistently,” Giles said. “As a manager, half the time trying to mentor a young African American, I didn’t want to be too harsh (but) I had to address that before my other colleagues clued into it. You want to protect, but … at the same time you don’t want to seem like you’re giving preferential treatment, or like you’re looking the other way about a basic issue like arriving on time. Sometimes we ought to know better than to take advantage of a situation. I felt annoyed that I even had to have that conversation,” she said. “It goes back to courage, the courage to speak up on behalf of the community and the courage not to self-destruct.”
Disrespect can create office tension you can slice, making it difficult if not impossible to do one’s job. Theoretically, extreme cases could rise to the level of harassment or result in an “adverse employment decision,” which is legal speak for discrimination. But that is rare, and usually the worker is the victim, not the boss.
Is Black-on-Black Discrimination Real?
Does black-on-black discrimination really exist in the workplace? Perhaps, though lawyers are hard-pressed to cite specific cases; and so it’s more a topic of dinner conversation than a courthouse reality. Among friends, some black managers are quick to level charges of black-on-black discrimination, casting aspersions on certain black CEOs who tend to surround themselves with white managers even though thoroughly qualified black executives have come knocking.
Racism is a serious charge, one that has no bearing on the personnel decisions of most black chief executives. But are they all beyond reproach? Are their job pipelines primed for black talent?
Why Hire Black?
The owner of a Philadelphia-based marketing and information technology company, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that as an African-American he is often torn about hiring black workers. “I definitely feel a responsibility to offer a black person an opportunity, just like I got. But many black people take you for granted and might not work as hard as their (white) peers. Some (African-Americans) rely too much on racial connections.
“You’re going to find people, no matter what race, who are not going to live up to their potential, but they should treat working for a black organization the same as working for a non-black organization.”
The entrepreneur, who formerly owned a design firm, periodically discusses hiring strategies with other black business owners, but has serious concerns about job candidates. “I’ve seen a difference in how some African-Americans interview for a job versus non-African-Americans,” he continued. “Some of that is based on (less) education. I try to give them some pointers, but I think that they relax when they should be extremely professional and aggressive.”
He may well be formulating an excuse for not taking a chance on a black worker. But don’t black entrepreneurs have as much right as anyone to entertain doubts about a prospective hire’s ability regardless of race?
On the other hand, his doubt may well be traced to what Mary B. McRae, associate professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, calls “internalized oppression”—the internalization of negative aspects of yourself and other black people.
As she explains it: “You have a sense of self-hate or hate for the group that you are part of and what they represent in society. The (widespread public) lesson has been that black folk are not smart, they’re not capable, and you sort of internalize that. The person does not appreciate his own group, and has a higher appreciation for whites. He idolizes what whites do and demonizes what blacks do.”
This applies not only to how black bosses evaluate the skills of subordinates, but also to how black subordinates rate the skills of black managers. Some black subordinates might view black managers’ abilities as not being on par with their white counterparts’, possibly providing rationale for refusing to do black managers’ bidding. R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., president and CEO of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, thinks most black-on-black disrespect is attributable to workplace tension.
“This is not just a black-on-black phenomenon,” he said. “I suspect it manifests itself among groups that have been disadvantaged or disenfranchised in the work force. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear of women bosses having a difficult time with women employees. I think it’s the same dynamic.”
Dr. Thomas, who has been recognized by The Wall Street Journal as one of the nation’s top business consultants, added: “You’d be surprised at the tension among black bosses and black subordinates. I’ve heard black employees complain that sometimes your most difficult manager can be a black person, and how they found it surprising that that was the case because they were expecting to get more consideration and more understanding from a black manager.”
Still Playing The Race Card?
In most mainstream organizations, African Americans are expected to leave racial concerns “at the door,” especially as they ascend the corporate structure. “In one setting, an individual went up the ladder and then he tried to champion black employees, and one of his white peers said to him, ‘I thought you had moved beyond that.’ So once he got up to a certain level, it was expected that he would not be playing the race card,” said Dr. Thomas.
This whole area, which has not been well-researched, usually is off-limits as a topic of discussion in mixed-race settings. “Some people say it’s like airing dirty laundry,” he said.
In his opinion, black managers can easily get trapped in a vice, facing problems that can emanate from any level in the corporate hierarchy. “The African-American boss can find him or herself caught between two forces. The people above him and alongside tend to have certain expectations, and those expectations can clash. And when they do clash, that’s when that person in the middle can really feel some pain. I think it’s common for all bosses.
I think this phenomenon is more important when you have an increase in the number of black executives in white organizations more so than black organizations. (Black organizations) can have great tension, but typically it’s not because the boss has escaped ‘the plantation.’ It’s more that they’re just different. … And we tend to not keep in mind the differences that can exist beside race. … The more free we become, the more comfortable we will be to express our differences.”
The CEO of a media company, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said: “If black workers aren’t going to respect their black bosses, then who will—certainly not white workers or executives? And that’s a prescription for failure, whether the company is white-run or black-owned and -operated. We’re not asking for anything extraordinary here. At the end of the day, all we want is the same thing many white managers are already getting—a little respect.”