I’ve become a consultant since I started writing this blog.
I don’t mind. People have always told me their problems, and me being me, I usually have a solution. So when a friend’s friend who reads the blog told me the following story, I warned her in advance — I’m going to write about this. For narrative purposes we’ll call her Summer.
So, Summer started a new job. You know how it is. You try to make friends, get the lay of the land, do your job, the usual. Starting off on the right foot, Summer spoke to everyone, and almost everyone spoke back. The one woman who didn’t approached later. She was very friendly, and Summer reciprocated. She was a senior manager; it would be stupid to snub her, and maybe there was a reason she hadn’t spoken before.
But over the next few weeks a pattern emerged. If they were alone the manager chatted openly, talking all about her life and asking Summer questions. Summer — no fool — responded but not with anything personal. If they were in company, however, it was radio silence.
Me: “So, if you were alone, you were her best bud. If you were around other co-workers you were invisible?”
Summer: “Yeah. Isn’t that strange? Do you think I should say something about it?”
“Is she your supervisor?”
“Do you work with her?”
“Not really. Strictly peripheral stuff; she’s in a different department.”
“Are you the only black person working in the company?”
“Yes. There’s a Hispanic guy, but — ”
“OK. Don’t worry about it.”
Summer laughed. “That’s it? Don’t worry about it?”
“Nah. She’s not important to you. Do not engage.”
Summer laughed harder. “She’s being fake. I should — ”
“Don’t start none, won’t be none,” I insisted.
Summer was practically snorting by this point; I was dead serious.
“Do not mess with that woman,” I repeated. “You’d do better to say hi, bye and focus on your job. Unfortunately, you can’t be everyone’s friend. Feed her from a long-handled spoon. You say the wrong thing, she’ll make a mountain out of a molehill, and you as the newcomer will be the one held accountable, watch and see. If you want to keep that job, you don’t have time for that kind of game playing.”
I haven’t talked to her since, but I hope Summer managed to curtail her curiosity. The situation was a minefield of unspoken bias. And if you know anything about bias — and I do — you know it can be tricky, and it has a marked tendency to blow up in your face.
I get it. Summer wants to do a good job, to be friendly with her new co-workers and get along with everyone, but that’s not always possible. In this scenario, it’s also not the point. Consistency in the workplace is immensely important. It is the foundation upon which effective work relationships, fabulous organizational cultures and memorable external brands are built.
The business world is already volatile; your co-workers shouldn’t be. Everybody has a bad day now and then, but your behavior should not vary as widely as that 64-pack of crayons with the sharpener in the back. Supervisors and managers in particular need to be as steady as the proverbial rock. None of this nice one day, asking how folks are, and the next day you walk past like your direct reports don’t exist.
Employees need their energy to be agile and navigate the constant change successful businesses encounter on an almost daily basis. We don’t need to use precious bandwidth trying to figure out where a co-worker’s head is at day to day. I mean, someone can ask for my help with a problem, but that doesn’t make me a therapist.
So, be consistent. It’s a common workplace problem, and unfortunately one that minorities have to deal with more than most. Why? There is any number of reasons, none of them based on anything real. It could be uncertainty, insecurity, perhaps a tiny bit of fear, or a keen desire not to offend — which ironically can cause you to do just the opposite — maybe all of the above? Whatever motivates this kind of oddball behavior, I repeat, it’s not real. How could it be? Think of Summer. That manager doesn’t know her; they just met.
That’s why I told her to leave it alone. It’s not Summer’s job to make this woman comfortable. It’s not Summer’s job to convince her that every stereotype or incident she’s heard, every non-objective newscast or article she’s seen or read is irrelevant. It’s not Summer’s responsibility to root out the reason for the manager’s behavior.
Summer needs to be smart and give potential problems 50 feet. You may have heard the phrase reputation is the cost of doing business? That’s legit. You have to guard yours. Summer doesn’t know where that woman’s head is at; and the manager has already shown a few cracks.
I’ve seen it too many times; you probably have too. Someone has an idea about who you are. Their behavior is based on that idea, not you. They didn’t bother to get to know you, yet their words, actions, all suggest that they know you very well — and that they’re not pleased with who they see. Then, with time, they figure out they’re wrong, but the damage has already done; the work relationship has been compromised.
Managers, employees, whoever, we should all be able to count on behavioral consistency at work. And if you’re going to behave badly it should be based on something real, not some lame, nebulous story or idea. Get to know who your co-workers are, not who you think they might be.