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Knowing When to Say When: Dealing with Dysfunction as a Black Woman in the Workplace


Written By: Essence Revels


Dealing with dysfunction in the workplace is relatively commonplace in twenty-first-century America. However, when you’re a Black woman, it’s more the expectation. While many people are raised under the mantra, ”Don’t quit what you start,” jobs tend to be the exception to that rule. People today rarely spend their entire career with one company … this ain’t the ‘70s, right? At some point, one usually finds themselves asking: When do I say when?


There is truly no right or wrong answer to that question. For some, it’s related to finances. For others, it’s simply a desire for change. For me, it’s usually the culture, the leadership (or lack thereof).


If I am being honest, most of my negative interactions in the workplace have been with white women. And while I’d gladly welcome them as allies, I've rarely felt their support. Instead, I’ve been more likely to experience their microaggressions and belittlement. The disconnect between Black and white women dates back to the transatlantic slave trade and reawakening during the feminist movements of the ‘60s (which solely focused on the rights and humanity of white women). Fast forward to 2022 and that divide is comparatively as prevalent.


Considering the fact that white women make up 33% of all bosses/managers in America, (to Black women’s 4%), it’s not uncommon to find ourselves in positions working under a white woman’s oppressive supervision. However, what I never grappled with was having these same issues with a boss who looks like me. Allow me to share my story.

Preface: This is a very difficult story to narrate, given my undying love for my people … nevertheless, this story HAS to be told. (This is by no means a revenge story. I am not looking for anyone to be terminated, disciplined, scrutinized, etc. Therefore, I will give everyone character names).


I spent most of my 20s and early 30s fumbling through a series of unfulfilling, albeit well-paying jobs. In almost all of these jobs, there was a similar theme: an overbearing dictator running the show, who did not have my best interest at heart. First, there was Patty, who was an extreme micromanager and regularly scrutinized my work under a much thicker lens than my white counterparts. Then there was Rebecca, who always felt the need to “check” me when my expertise overshadowed hers. (I’m smarter than you sis - get over it.) Then of course there was Megan, who once told me that my style of communication was “too aggressive.” As Black women, we’ve all been there, but that doesn’t make it any less infuriating. It’s a constant battle between self-advocacy and avoiding slipping into the “black box” of becoming the difficult, angry black woman.


Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I accepted a new position at a corporation that finally seemed to align with my values, and more importantly, had a leader who exemplified Black excellence, or so I thought. Let’s call her Mrs. Williams. I am and have always been a dreamer, and lord knows this woman surely sold me the dream. The benefits? Incredible! The culture? Outstanding! The hours? Immaculate! As a mother and wife, nothing a job can offer me is more important than the ability to spend time with my family, and my soon-to-be boss offered me three office days and two work-from-home days every week. I was so convinced that this was my dream job that I uprooted my entire family from a small town in New Jersey (NJ) to a few states south in Prince George’s County, Maryland (MD). Granted, it has always been a dream of ours to move to PG County, as it is statistically the wealthiest majority Black county in America and I couldn’t imagine a better place to raise my children. This job opportunity seemed like God presenting me with the golden ticket to make the move! So my family and I went for it.


Strike One:

You’ll notice I referred to my new boss as Mrs. Williams earlier. That was intentional. After meeting all of my coworkers upon onboarding, including the most tenured staff, I found that EVERYONE referred to her as Mrs. Williams. This was apparently a requirement! Why? Mrs., by definition and societal custom, is how married women are addressed, but generally by children or someone significantly younger than them as a sign of respect. In school, students call their married teachers Mrs. and their unmarried teachers Miss, for instance. So what reason would this woman have to REQUIRE her staff to refer to her as Mrs. Williams? Control and manipulation: the weaponization of authority. In retrospect, I should have left when I found that out. But as the breadwinner of my family and the sole motivator behind our move, I had to find a way to stick it out. My husband left behind his bus business for me. My kids were leaving the only home they knew for me. I mean, this had to work right?


Strike one.


Strike Two:

Further highlighting Mrs. Williams’ abuse of authority, I watched as she regularly tore down Black folks. I would like to reiterate that one of her biggest selling points to me was that she herself was a Black woman, and I assumed she’d look out for the Black women on her staff at the very least. Nothing could be further from the truth. On multiple occasions, I recall Mrs. Williams creating proposals using the credentials and resumes of her employees to build credibility, then denying those same employees the opportunities to work on those projects.

She would make comments like, “You don’t work hard enough,” completely belittling them and tarnishing their confidence, while at the same time, profiting off of them. These were Black women, Black women who joined this company, like me, because they wanted to learn and partner with a successful Black female. Clearly, we all had our heads in the clouds.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I recall a time in which she completely degraded a Black man who was a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. I was sent to attend a conference to discuss community outreach efforts to support marginalized individuals in accessing the COVID-19 vaccine. While highlighting the credentials of the participants, Mrs. Williams referred to Tevin Michael as a “flaming gay guy.” It’s essentially a more gentle way of calling someone the f-word for those who aren’t hip. No mention of his credentials! No mention of the fact that Tevin had a master’s degree or the fact that he spoke six languages fluently! The best she could do was highlight his sexuality - in a negative light at that? We have to do better by our people, y'all! On a personal level, I have a gay little brother so I’m very passionate about advocating for marginalized groups. THEREFORE, I was especially infuriated by this remark so I called Mrs. Williams out! Suddenly, it was as if I had become the problem child of my working environment.


I stood my ground ONCE and she attempted to alienate me … to scold me—no, to punish me. I found myself once again advocating for myself in order to do my job properly, but this time against another Black woman. To this day, the irony in that is perplexing. Sometimes I look back and ask myself how I even allowed it to get to strike three.

But anyway, strike two.


Strike Three:

The final straw with Mrs. Williams was when her leadership, more like dictatorship style, began infringing on my time and abilities to be a parent first and an employee second. Prioritizing my life as a mother and wife is and has always been a non-negotiable for me. I made that crystal clear to Mrs. Williams in each and every interview that I had with her prior to my onboarding. Before I get into this, let me provide some more context:


I moved my family two and a half hours away from the only life they had ever known, which is terrifying, to say the least. My daughter was a baby at the time so it didn’t affect her much, but my son was five when we moved so he had already started school and had begun developing relationships with his peers. The move was very tough on him. My husband also gave up his coaching career in NJ and planned to try to re-establish himself in MD. Having very minimal connections, that was going to be a tall task. Mrs. Williams, cognizant of my circumstances, began using them in an attempt to manipulate me.


I was a salaried employee and of course, that sometimes meant working more than 40 hours in a week - which was fine as long as it didn’t negatively impact my family. Well, my daughter got sick one day. Nothing abnormal, but my husband was coaching that day so I had to care for her. As a result, I worked an extra day from home that week. It was never communicated to me that that was going to be an issue. The following week, my daughter recovered and I resumed my normal shift: two days from home and three from the office.


Mrs. Williams calls me out of the blue: “Where are you?”
Me, confused: “I’m home. What’s going on?”
Mrs. Williams, rudely: “Oh no you need to work an extra day in the office this week. I let you stay home with your daughter last week.”

Something about the words need and let triggered me. It reminded me of how my previous bosses had spoken to me as if I was less than. I decided at that moment that I would not tolerate her nonsense any further.


Strike three. You’re out.


On my way out, I refused to allow Mrs. Williams to get the better of me. A moral code of conduct is something that I have always prided myself on and regardless of the tension, I would not allow her to corrupt my principles. Besides, I still needed to provide for my family and the idea of leaving a job on a whim was reckless, to say the least. So, I devised an exit plan.


The plan was simple. I would continue to work with Mrs. Williams as a consultant until I found my next opportunity. This was a win-win situation for both of us as her business wouldn’t have to suffer from my immediate departure, and I would still be able to maintain my livelihood. We both had a great deal to lose. Accordingly, I stuck it out with her for the next three months before finally moving on. I also decided to be candid with her and communicate that her leadership style and the broken culture of the company negatively affected my mental health. She seemed to understand - my only hope is that she learns from this and treats her future employees with the decency that they deserve!


My experiences with Mrs. Williams were easily the most painful in my professional career. The level of misery and disappointment I felt having been treated like that by a fellow Black woman is immeasurable. I suffer from PTSD to this day from my interactions with her. I can’t even imagine putting faith in my bosses going forward, even if they look like me and we have a supposed common ground.


I once watched a documentary in college about the generational trauma that Black Americans have undergone since the transatlantic slave trade. In short, it highlighted how broken our people are as a result of centuries of enslavement, and how much work there is still to do for us to heal despite being free (in the legal sense) for over 150 years. Community is the key to healing. It is the exact reason I left small-town NJ to move to MD. We live in an all-Black middle-class neighborhood; my little brother calls it “a real-life Wakanda!”


Mrs. Williams is a prime example of what can happen to a Black woman who has never felt that sense of community. You grow cold and you misuse your authority, even at the expense of people who look like you.

It is my challenge to everyone who is reading this, but particularly Black people with a platform or position of power, to take care of your people. Build that sense of community in the workplace with your Black colleagues and employees. Give them the space to be their most authentic selves. It is so important to feel welcomed, and I mean genuinely welcomed in the workplace. This is why I’m so passionate about my newfound career. After amicably departing from Mrs. Williams, I am now responsible for championing equitable workplace environments through diversity, equity, and inclusion training. I will not be satisfied until everyone feels like work is their home away from home.


If we can reform the Mrs. Williams of the world and dismantle dysfunction in the workplace, then maybe we won’t have to ponder the question of when to say when.


 

Meet the Author

Essence Revels - ElleTwo Contributor

Essence Revels is a dedicated innovator whose passions lie in advocating for historically marginalized communities - namely women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. She has spent the majority of her career fighting for the advancement of unconventional workforce customs, in hopes of restructuring traditional office culture into one in which all employees are valued. Employee satisfaction is her motivation; Diversity and inclusion are the tools to drive that provocation. Hailing from a small impoverished community, she has seen firsthand both the struggles of providing affordable care for all, as well as the lack of representation for marginalized groups, especially in professional settings. Essence aims to change that.

For over a decade, Essence has been empowering organizations to create and sustain commissioned programs through igniting engaging and inclusive workplace initiatives. In her prior roles at Aledade Inc. and HCD International, she collaborated with the companies’ CEOs and county officials to formulate social justice initiatives and engage with under-resourced communities to champion for equity. In 2019, Essence successfully founded Aledade Inc.’s Black & African Diaspora Affinity Resource Group, paving the way for the development of the company’s Health Equity Center, which further advanced Aledade’s mission and promoted equitable practices. She then went on to develop the framework for a Clinical Food Pantry model. This model has positively impacted quality improvement outcomes for individuals experiencing food insecurities. Furthermore, she designed and led a health-equity training series to coach healthcare professionals across the state of Maryland on diversity, equity, and inclusion in population health, thus highlighting her distinct ability to coach - which is rooted in her orientation towards service excellence and her deep passion for promoting impartiality in the healthcare field. One of Essence's greatest strengths is her ability to guide stakeholders in articulating their equity aspirations, as well as identifying and recommending strategic solutions to sustain organizational transformation.


In her current stature, Essence is responsible for curating and sustaining serene partnerships amongst organizations in their entirety, all the while promoting equity and a sense of community from top to bottom. She has found immeasurable success in that. However, she dreams of more. Ultimately, her goal is to cultivate the best workplace environments on an international scale, ensuring the happiness and success of all team members along the way. She envisions a future in which the establishment and solidification of a culture of appreciation is the standard at all organizations. There is significant work to be done, but Essence has never been one to falter from a challenge.



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