Black Men in Corporate America: Acquiring Social Capital and Adjusting to Changes in Diversity Priorities

Black Men in Corporate America: Acquiring Social Capital and Adjusting to Changes in Diversity Priorities

A few years ago, I conducted a qualitative study to better understand how the intersection of race and gender created a set of experiences germane to Black men in corporate America. I wanted to understand the impact of racism on the career development of Black professional men. Fourteen successful Black men agreed to be a part of the study. The men, ranging in ages 35-55, had achieved mid- to senior-level management positions within their respective companies, which spanned across job functions and industries. From the study I was able to identify five enablers of success and four common roadblocks they encountered in their career development. In later posts within this series, I will discuss the enablers to positive career development. The roadblocks were:

  1. Stereotypes attributed to Black men
  2. Subjective and disparate career development practices
  3. Different opportunity structure for the acquisition of sociopolitical capital
  4. Changing priorities in companies’ workplace diversity targets

In Black Men in Corporate America: Confronting Stereotypes and Dispelling Myths, I covered the first two roadblocks. Here, I delve into the different opportunity structure for the acquisition of sociopolitical capital and changing priorities in companies’ workplace diversity targets. Actual quotes from participants provide a more personalized glimpse into their experiences. Names are changed to provide anonymity.

Different opportunity structure for the acquisition of sociopolitical capital.

Organizations are social and political arenas. For executives to be successful, they must become adept at acquiring and leveraging sociopolitical capital. The opportunities to acquire that capital can be different for Black men compared to their White counterparts. The differentiated acquisition of sociopolitical capital is a roadblock because of the informal and unwritten rules and mores that govern social and political interactions. These unwritten rules are learned over time and the skills needed to navigate in a sociopolitical environment are often taught through mentoring or coaching experiences from those experienced within the organizational system.

What is social and political capital?

During my study, I relied upon work done by two leading scholars in the area of social capital in organizations. Erika Hayes James, now dean of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, conducted research on the underlying effects of human and social capital. Her study examined two alternative explanations for disparity in reported work-related experiences and outcomes between Black and White managers: treatment discrimination because of race, and differences in human and social capital. James defined social capital resources as:

The qualities that characterize the network of relationships one has with organizational peers, subordinates, and superiors. These relationships are important because they can be used to facilitate career advancement and the receipt of organizational support such as career-related and psycho-social support.

She also reiterated empirical evidence that has consistently shown that individuals tend to interact with members of their own social group (race, gender, status, organizational affiliation, etc.) than they do with members belonging to other social groups and these interactions form the basis of organizational consequences.

The second scholar, Rochelle Parks-Yancy, an organizational management professor currently at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, conducted research on the effects of social group membership and social capital resources on careers. Specifically, she looked at the process of differential access to and the returns from social capital resources by Blacks and Whites in an effort to understand what contributes to inequalities in career outcomes. Social capital resources include such assets as information, influence, and opportunity.

Combining elements from the definitions of social capital presented by James and Parks-Yancy, I conceptualize social capital as the network of relationships consisting of peers, subordinates, and superiors, which provide access to social capital resources (information, influence, and opportunity) that lead to successful career development.

Political capital is closely related to social capital. It is gained by knowing what to do in a particular work situation and executing those behaviors in a convincing manner. We have all heard the terms, political savvy or office politics. These terms reflect our understanding that it takes certain skills to navigate the politics within organizations and individuals must be consciously aware and willing to exercise those skills if they are going to be successful.

Social Network_2

Strong social ties enable access to information, influence and opportunity.

First generation Black executives learn through trial and error.

In describing their career development, a few of the participants admitted that as first generation corporate executives, they often learned about informal social networks and the unwritten rules through trial and error. David, a vice president in management consulting, recalled a time when he sat in a board meeting for the first time and did not know what to say or how to conduct himself in that meeting. He admitted rising to senior levels at two companies only to find that he was not adept in corporate politics. When I asked participants how racism had shaped their career development, several mentioned the good-old-boy network, tangible examples of when their White peers gained access to information that was unavailable to them, and the extra energy they have to exert to make their White counterparts comfortable with them – something they said was a necessity to “fit in” and to receive consideration for assignments and promotions. Some participants expressed disdain for corporate politics and did make conscious decisions about if and when they were willing to exert energy to apply political capital. Overall, the findings emanating from a body of research on this topic and from the participants in my study indicate that Whites have more opportunities to acquire sociopolitical capital than Blacks and that Blacks often have to expend more energy to acquire that capital than their White counterparts.

As previously stated and for purposes of this discussion, group members are more likely racially homogeneous. That means Whites are more likely to exchange capital with other Whites and the same is true of Blacks. The difference is that when the knowledge shared is about the norms and mores of corporate America, Whites likely have more resources to share because their social ties to corporate America have existed longer than the ties Blacks have in this context. As first generation corporate executives the participants mentioned they seldom had family members or role models to teach them about corporate culture and expectations.

Henry, in discussing the differentiated opportunity to acquire needed business skills and exposure to senior executives found that his White counterparts had an advantage over him. This vice president in media productions stated:

To be quite honest, I think it starts in their homes because most African Americans are first generation executives, but for White Americans their parents and their parents’ parents have been somewhere in the corporate chain of something – if it’s a family-owned business or corporate America or something. They’ve got that business acumen very early on, and so here we are being that first generation that is kind of jumping into the game of executive thinking.

David added:

They’ve been playing golf, they’ve been around the board room, the country club conversation, and I find that’s a reality. They have been schooled in what they should say and what they shouldn’t say and how you do the chit chat. They watched their fathers do it and the like. So, they have a tremendous advantage when it comes to that [politics]. And whether you look at etiquette, whether you look at the casual conversation, on and on, they are just advantaged.

Martin, a vice president in the transportation and logistics industry, was the only participant who had the advantage of having early exposure to a family member in corporate America. Martin talked about what it meant to have a brother in corporate America. He said:

I had the unique vantage point of seeing a Black man in a suit, doing his work…just the visual of seeing a Black man who is your brother come from the office, driving a decent car, dressing well and then listening to him. He would talk about things he was working on: I had a client meeting; I’ve got to take this client out to dinner; here’s things I’m working on – and I’m listening to all of this and I think back on that and I go, wow, what a visual that was for me because I think a lot of Black men don’t have that kind of visual that was so close to them.

Jerome, a division vice president in a financial services organization, added another example of the different opportunity structure for promotions that exists for Whites at his company. He stated, “By and large for the positions of real importance, we still do it the old-fashioned way.” He described that old-fashioned way as accessing the network of relationships to find out more information on a prospective candidate. Jerome said,

The problem for Black applicants is that nobody knows who they are so when they post for a position, because they are not recognized and acknowledged, they are not excluded because they are Black; they are excluded because they are not known. They don‘t have anyone who is pushing their resume.

Given Jerome’s example and from a personal agency standpoint, the Black candidates had not acquired the social capital they needed to advance their careers. From a systemic standpoint, one could surmise the candidates were not known because they were Black and did not have the same opportunity to acquire the sociopolitical capital to be viable considerations for promotion. Thus, this is a vivid example of how the lack of sociopolitical capital is a structural roadblock in career development that impacts Blacks more often than their White counterparts.

This last example came from Bill, a vice president in health sciences. Bill’s example was particularly striking because it corroborated several of the participants’ intuitions that their White counterparts engage in informal social networks with superiors that serve to advantage White males. Bill had recalled being in a staff meeting with his manager and peers, all of whom were White males, and his manager asking him about a project that was past due. Initially, Bill questioned whether he had overlooked an email or some communication because he was not familiar with the project. He apologized to his manager for not recalling the assignment. The manager became frustrated and mentioned to Bill that he had received the assignments from all Bill’s peers. Initially, the peers remained quiet, but after the manager continued to reprimand Bill for not completing the assignment, one of the peers spoke up on Bill’s behalf. Bill said, “Finally one of my peers spoke up and said, John, you told us about that at your house on Saturday when we were watching the ballgame. Bill wasn’t there.” Bill continued to make meaning of that experience. He said:

Those are the social networks that they have that often times we don’t have…Here‘s a guy who was viewing me as lacking in my responsibilities because of something he shared with my coworkers over the weekend at his house.

The stories shared by the participants are supported in empirical studies. In Parks-Yancy research she found that Whites have greater access to social capital resources than Blacks and were more likely to be promoted as a result of leveraging those social capital resources than Blacks. Most telling in the Parks-Yancy study was that it confirmed White men and women were more likely to be promoted than Black women, but that Black men were less likely to be promoted than Black women. Even when Black men used personal ties to obtain jobs, they were still less likely to be promoted than Black women who also used personal ties.

Diverse Business People

Changing priorities in companies’ workplace diversity targets.

Approximately 45 years ago, workplace recruiters aggressively sought Black men to fill their corporate rolls, often enticing them with elevated titles and attractive salaries. Today, they are the least likely to be hired or promoted. From affirmative action policies which yielded first-generation Black corporate executives, to today’s dynamic and multicultural workforce, Black professional men find themselves on the losing side of a zero-sum game. Participants discussed the disappointment in their companies’ diversity efforts and how changing priorities have shifted the focus and the opportunities away from Black men to expand to women and other minorities. It is not that the men held hostility against women and minorities for receiving more of the jobs that historically had gone to Black men; rather, they were frustrated that the pool of jobs going to women and minorities seems to be finite. Thus, women and minorities end up competing with each other for a limited supply of jobs while White males continue to occupy 70% to 80% of the jobs at their companies, and particularly at the most senior levels in their companies.

From affirmative action policies which yielded first-generation Black corporate executives, to today’s dynamic and multicultural workforce, Black professional men find themselves on the losing side of a zero-sum game.

Between 1970 and 1980, the number of Black men holding executive, administrative, or managerial jobs increased each year at twice the rate of their White male counterparts. However, access has never translated into equality. Other studies confirm that although Black men gained entry into corporate America, their career growth stagnated and they failed to make inroads into key decision-making positions and in the racial redistribution of power.

The diversity paradigm has changed.

The participants in this study know the diversity paradigm has changed. Whether it is from a lack of commitment to diversity or the targets for diversity are different, the men shared how the changing priorities have impacted their career development. Dallas, a 38-year-old marketing executive, said he left a company because of its lack of commitment to diversity. He said, “I can’t flourish here. You guys say you want diversity, but you really don’t.” Dallas remembered attending a company event where the CEO and his staff were on stage to talk to employees about a recent organizational change. Dallas recalled:

They had us in several movie theaters. There were so many employees they couldn’t fit us in one auditorium and they broadcast this thing via satellite from the headquarters. There was not one woman or one person of color on that stage, of all the senior leaders, not one. I looked and said, wait a minute, we’re global? You don’t even have a woman up there? This is crazy.

Celica, a vice president in pharmaceutical sales, said his candor with White male leaders about the company’s lack of diversity in managerial ranks cost him job opportunities. Steve, a senior vice president in human resources, said, “I think nowadays for a company to not have these Black executives in their ranks is an embarrassing fact.” Yet, Steve, like so many of the participants, talked about the changing priority and the impact of multiculturalism and globalization on corporate diversity efforts. He said:

The world has gone global over the past 20 years in particular and that trend is increasing. There are going to be so many diverse people in the workplace. If you don’t have a Black male, so what? It will become less of an issue because you’ve got five Asians. Nobody is going to get caught up into that. In other words I don’t think people are going to really care…it‘s not the whole Black and White paradigm. I think that’s going to be gone.

No one would argue that embracing diversity and expanding opportunities to a more broadly defined talent pool are not good for business or even for individuals. Why the changing priority is a roadblock for Black men is because with so many other racially diverse people, employers can continue to diversify their workforce without confronting their inherent biases against hiring and promoting Black men. The threat to Black men is that they will continue to have a declining presence in corporate America and particularly in the executive ranks.

This structural roadblock is complicated for Black men to navigate because as Steve noticed, the paradigm has changed. Black men have a tougher time making the argument of race discrimination if an employer has an otherwise racially and ethnically diverse employee population. They will have and historically have had a tougher time making the gender argument in a society where the male gender is often privileged. It is not yet widely known or accepted that Black men encounter gendered racism due to the intersection of race and gender.

Has “best available talent” become code for overlooking diversity?

Employers say they simply want the best available talent. However, the best organizations understand that in order to find, hire and promote the best available talent, managers must broaden their talent pools to look for talent that may not look like them. Managers should take stock of their current team composition and be intentional about its diversity, not only in race and gender, but in other ways that add new perspectives, backgrounds and experiences.

In summary, both the different opportunities to acquire sociopolitical capital and the changing priorities in diversity targets are roadblocks Black men face in their career development. They are not insurmountable as we learn from these 14 successful Black men. However, they point to areas where companies can focus efforts to remove roadblocks and create more equitable workplaces. Human resources and business leaders should think to implement solutions like manager training on unconscious bias; training or mentoring for all but particularly women and minorities on building social capital and political savvy; implementing a requirement for diverse slates, particularly for key decision making roles or roles underrepresented by women and minorities; being more intentional about diversity of team composition; setting targets for diversity that redistribute power at the highest levels within organizations; and holding senior leaders accountable. Likewise, individuals should take a self-assessment of their social networks. As part of their individual development plans, individuals should identify superiors, peers and subordinates across the company and externally to build a diverse portfolio of relationships. As leaders of teams, individuals have an opportunity to ensure their teams reflect the changing society and consumer base.

The next post in this series on Black men in corporate America, I will discuss five enablers to career success.


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