Wednesday, June 23, 2010

May I Help You? Brothas Need Not apply

The next time you’re at the register in a store, the teller window of a bank, or the front desk of a hotel take a good look at the person behind the counter. Chances are you’ll rarely ever see a Black male working there.

When it comes to service jobs which require public interaction, Black males are the least likely to be hired even if they have the qualifications to fill the job. Positions like receptionist, administrative assistant, sales rep, customer service rep are often filled by a White woman, Black woman, Hispanic woman, Asian woman, or Hispanic man.

So why don’t we see Black men in at the front desk? A little bit of sexism and a whole lot of racism. Most corporate cultures have an institutionally racist perception of Black men that taints their hiring process. The unwritten rule within the policies of most businesses is that Black men should not be in jobs where they are visible to the public. Traditionally, the front desk/counterperson was considered the “face” who represented the business.

That’s where the sexism comes in.

In addition to these unwritten rules and institutionally racist policies towards black men, many in management have a sexist perception of who should work in front-desk service positions steeped in dated traditional roles for men and women. In the past people who worked in positions such as a receptionist, administrative assistant, or customer service rep were White females and females of color. Employers who subconsciously adhered to these traditional roles for men and women want their service person such as a receptionist or administrative assistant to be a hostess, someone who invites people into their business and makes them comfortable with a soft pleasant voice that they believe is soothing to hear over the phone.
Because of this racism and sexism, the institution of management in America frowns on the idea of having a Black male in front-desk service positions. Many in management regardless of race don’t want the person representing their company to be a Black male because they fear it could be detrimental to the growth of their business and will alienate customers.

So how are these hiring practices detrimental to Black males and employment? With the service sector being fastest growing area of the economy in the United States over the last twenty years, oftentimes these are the only jobs available in urban areas. With most service positions in the inner-city oftentimes being filled by Black females, Hispanic females or Hispanic men, this discrimination leads to the disproportionate unemployment of Black men. In some urban areas the unemployment rate of Black males is close to 60 percent while the unemployment rate for other minorities (especially by gender) is much lower.

In the past, businesses in the service sector offered jobs to Black men were in non-visible areas such as the mailroom, copy clerk, stock clerk, porter or maintenance. However, many of these traditional service positions where Black men were employed were eliminated after the tragedy of 9/11. After 9/11, some businesses realized they could be more productive without these positions. Other firms realized they could hire Hispanic or Easter European workers in the same positions for a lower salary and less benefits. Worse, many in management were more comfortable with the idea of having Hispanic men or Eastern European men in these service positions and preferred hiring them instead of Black men.

Unless there’s a drastic change in the perceptions of American society regarding African-American men and service sector, many if not most Black men will not be able to find and retain full-time employment. This will lead to an economic crisis in the Black community not seen since the drafts of the Vietnam War in 1965.
Currently the service sector, especially front desk positions that require interaction with the public are a “hostile environment” when it comes to the employment of Black men. Most managers regardless of race do not have a positive perception of Black males in the workplace. Moreover, many in business regardless of gender or race are extremely hesitant to hire a Black male as the “face of their company.

Because of decades of institutionally racist policies and culturally sexist perceptions of work and gender roles, many in management regardless of color cannot comprehend the idea of a Black male in a service position requiring public interaction and hire other minorities whenever possible. Usually, when a Black male applies for a position in the service sector, candidates are often perceived as lazy and incompetent during interviews or even before they apply for the position. Employers often use these prejudices to disqualify many capable black males from employment even if they meet all the requirements for the position.

The few Black males who overcome the discriminatory hiring process and are employed
in service positions are often met with no support from management and resistance from co-workers. Instead of feeling “welcomed” during the first few weeks while adjusting to the new workplace, many black men encounter a work environment that is distant and tense with managers and co-workers who have very little patience or understanding. During this adjustment period, management tends to punish new Black male hires and threaten them with termination for small mistakes. However, these same managers would usually tolerate the same mistakes from a female or Hispanic male employee in the same position.

Co-workers often express their discomfort with Black male employees in service
positions with passive-aggressive behavior. For example, during the training of a new black male hire, a female assistant will withhold critical information that is integral to the employee performing their work duties. However, this same assistant would easily share this information with another female co-worker. Other passive-aggressive behaviors Black men have faced in the service workplace from co-workers included memos not being delivered to their desk, documents being “lost”, management not introducing the new hire to seinior staff or other co-workers or “forgetting” to return from a break so the new hire could take theirs.
Oftentimes, when Black men try to communicate with co-workers in service environments, they are met with defensive body language, indifferent responses, or they’re met with downright hostility. With most service positions requiring constant communication between co-workers, it becomes nearly impossible for a Black male to perform well in the workplace.

Black men also deal with resistance from customers as well in front of the counter. Many customers of numerous ethnicities are more willing and eager to complain about perceived “harsh treatment” or “rude service” when served by a Black male at the counter. Other customers have complained of “hard tone” or “hostility” on the phone with a Black male customer service rep. Moreover, some customers perceive facial expressions of black men as “angry”, “surly”, or “menacing”, when they approach a black male clerk or sales associate for assistance. Other customers perceived themselves as being in danger and won’t approach black male employees at the counter and the sales floor.

This hostile and racist environment within the service sector creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where Black men are unable to perform the basic tasks of their jobs. Because they are perceived as incompetent, lazy and judged by unrealistic double standards from managers and co-workers, many black men become frustrated and resign. Other Black males are terminated for minor infractions and have their work records unfairly tarnished. This turnover creates a false perception in society that black males are poor employees. However, this is far from the truth. Most Black males do not perform well in service positions due to institutionally racist policies, cultural adhesion to sexist gender roles in employment, a lack of support from management and co-workers, and prejudices from the public.

Can the service sector change the way it treats black men seeking employment? Yes it can. To do that will require American management to change its culturally racist perceptions of Black men. Employers will have to overcome their prejudices and move past stereotypes they have learned about Black males. They will have to be paitient and understanding and learn how to support their black male employees the same way they support black female employees and other minorities.

Why am I writing this? I’ve been employed in numerous service jobs since 1994 and over the years I’ve noticed a pattern in how minorities were placed in jobs and how Black men were treated in the workplace. From my observations over the years I noticed that Black men worked out of sight in the back, other minorities and females of color in the front regardless of education. At hiring pools, women of color and Hispanic men with the same qualifications were hired before Black men for a front-desk or administrative support position. When I was placed in the front-end service jobs like the receptionist’s desk or at the circulation desk of a library, I was met with tremendous resistance from just about everyone. I often wondered if it was racism; looking back I’m pretty sure. People aren’t comfortable with the idea of a Black man serving them, and that has to change.

I’m deeply concerned that if these trends continue in the workplace Black men will have an even harder time finding and retaining full-time employment. With the unemployment rate of Black men reaching 60-75 percent in some urban areas, I feel it’s time brothas started discussing the racist, sexist and discriminatory hiring practices in the service sector.

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