By Ellen McGirt
August 11, 2016

Recruiting talent, particularly young, African American professionals, has become a top priority for many large companies. So much so, that I worry that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are going to be being overrun every spring with earnest white executives bearing goodwill and signing bonuses. (Actually, that sounds pretty good.)

But that’s not solving the diversity problem for many. “It’s not that we have trouble finding great people who want to come here,” a C-suite executive of a major financial firm told me recently. “It’s getting them to stay. And I’m really frustrated.”

Dr. Lawrence James, Jr., a Chicago-based clinical psychologist-turned-leadership-consultant, is not surprised. “Retention is one of the biggest issues we see,” he says. African American employees, he says, face significantly different issues navigating the workplace. And companies tend to do a poor job identifying and developing their young, black talent. “We don’t ‘walk and talk’ the same as majority culture talent,” he says. “We’re navigating bias, we find networking difficult –where a lot of bonding takes place – and we’re struggling with being authentic when we’re constantly reminded that we’re not as worthy.”

He recently published a white paper based on his research:

“Successful African-American executives indicated that relationship building was more complex for them and required special effort to connect with their majority culture peers. This was particularly evident when discussing activities outside of work hours such as business dinners with colleagues, attending corporate events, and the like. Many African-American executives eschew these events, preferring to spend these off hours at home with their families or other close connections where they can take off their mask and recharge for the next day.”

James started life as a clinical psychologist, with a largely black client base. “They were mostly young, individual contributors, some first time leaders,” he recalls. But they were in real anguish, specifically about work. He ticks through a list of what he heard. “My boss is a jerk. I’m being passed over for promotions. People are saying racist things and I can’t say anything back,” he says. “I was seeing it across industries, too. These people were sharp, but they were stuck.” And now, he says, they were depressed. He switched gears to focus on organizational psychology, partly to avoid his own burnout, but also to work on the system.“We’re not going to solve the bigger issues we’re facing as a country if we don’t tackle racial bias at work. Because it’s real.”

Read his report, if you get a chance. But the bottom line is that James believes that companies need to think differently about how they develop black talent, factoring in the pressures they feel and the barriers they face. “The paradigm for coaching African American executives is wrong,” he says flatly.

“As a black man, I want to show up at work with integrity,” he says. “Let’s not pretend race isn’t a factor.”


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