I met a fabulous young woman on a flight to New York this week. It was a quick trip to the Big Apple to accept my Folio award — I’m a top woman in media for 2016 — and I expected to sleep, but we struck up a conversation.
Before we knew it the plane was landing, and I’d learned all about her. She’s pretty, straight out of college, newly employed at a Fortune 100 financial services company, with — judging by her conversation — a fabulous work ethic. She’s also black.
In that two-hour plane ride, this paragon of young talent told me quite a few disturbing things. How she couldn’t even wear her straight hair in a bun without being subjected to endless questions and queries about the different hairstyle. FYI, that is so annoying. How she couldn’t wear a fitted dress — not tight or in a bright color, she hastened to assure me, just well-tailored — without being stared at and whispered about.
The financial services industry is extremely conservative, I offered. She assured me that she was aware of that. I said, OK, but are you sure your clothes weren’t too tight or straddling the line between cool for marketing and PR, but brow-raising for finance? She said confidently and definitively, no. And after admiring my Prince purple nails — in honor of the late great musician — she said she loved them, for instance, but that she never wore bright colored polish herself because it wasn’t appropriate. Not, she added, even now when she wasn’t working; she was coming to New York a month before her new position began to get her apartment set up, find a yoga studio, etc. True enough, I thought, looking down to see her short, neat, clear painted nails.
She told me about working long hours, long after some of her fellow interns had left, and how when she was asked to get coffee for meetings — something she didn’t object to; she relished invitations to sit in on those meetings and be exposed to the senior executives they contained — she was expected to pay for the drinks, and then had to wait to be reimbursed. This happened so often, she was forced to call home to ask for money. She told me about being screamed at in front of others for mistakes she didn’t make, and while the person later apologized to her, that is a huge no-no.
As tough as it is to find and keep quality talent, organizations should be concerned about tales like these. Some of the things she shared are par for the course when you’re young, black and female in the workplace — the hair crap, for one thing. The dress envy, for another, especially when you have a fabulous little figure, which she does. But that doesn’t mean leaders should allow this type of harassing behavior to slide.
And there is no reason interns should be working late into the night on a regular basis. I don’t think any employer should be doing that. If they are, there are staffing and/or productivity issues that need to be addressed. And the whole go pick-up-coffee thing where the interns have to pay? That is flat out ridiculous. You should have a slush or petty cash fund or a credit card earmarked for situations like that.
They’re interns. The word intern is not synonymous with the phrase well-paid. Why importune a young person that way? It’s careless and arrogant, and with companies like Glassdoor out there policing and sharing every bad review, can companies really afford to behave thoughtlessly with talent?
Leaders have to be vigilant about the kind of culture they cultivate. Young talent is so incredibly valuable, and there are many places available for them to share their gifts. Transparency, consideration, ensuring that minority talent is not unduly put upon for unimportant appearance-related factors — these things are what separate the good companies from the bad.
My young banking friend was already talking about setting up her own shop one day. That happens too often with young female talent. They’re mistreated, not promoted, aggravated, unfairly paid, and they leave to start their own companies. That’s great for them, but it’s terrible for the companies they leave behind.
So I ask you, how do you treat young talent?