Lately, with so much attention being paid to systemic racism it is a reminder that people of colour are less represented as one climbs up the corporate ladder. This means that most Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) have experienced being passed over for a promotion they believed was deserved.
Members of the BIPOC communities are familiar with the expression “we’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far” as our white counterparts. This sentiment has been expressed repeatedly by Michelle Obama and most other parents within these communities. Since childhood, we’ve known that we’ll never get in the door without solid qualifications.
Anecdotally, in many fields including accounting, nursing, medicine, engineering, and computer science, visible minorities are overrepresented relative to their numbers in the general population. This February 2020 Statistics Canada report prepared to coincide with Black History Month provides some additional context. Similarly, this survey of visible minority university students shows that they make up a significant percentage of the campus population.
The state of most workplaces suggests that something other than merit is operating – or we’d see better representation at all levels.
The U.S. college admissions scandal that came to light in March 2019 — celebrities and other wealthy people took action to get preferential treatment for their children – is a great example of how widespread and well-established the practice of passing over has become. It’s hard to know how many better-qualified candidates were passed over and denied opportunities because some parents used their money to pave the way for their kids’ success.
Here are two examples of how being passed over plays out in the workplace. One scenario that I’ve heard from BIPOC men and women is that they’ve been asked to train someone who eventually becomes his/her boss, or who took their job before they were planning to leave. The other variant is when someone less experienced and less capable, gets a promotion over a colleague who was qualified in every way.
Favouritism or nepotism are surprisingly common reasons for being passed over for promotion in even the most professional-seeming organizations. In certain organizations, promotions are based on intentional or unintentional favouritism. It can be a convenient method for deciding whom to promote and assign other rewards like preferred files, clients, etc. but it contributes to a negative corporate culture.
The only silver lining is that the conversation has become too loud to be ignored.
Advice for When You’ve Been Passed Over
While an emotional response is natural, it is important to take a day or two to process and calm down, and not exhibit an openly emotional response to the situation. To lose your temper or have an emotional meltdown in front of your employer will only reaffirm that he/she made the right choice.
Understand that being passed over for a promotion is not a sign of failure. There can be a myriad of reasons someone else made the cut. The reasons may not be what you think. When you are ready to receive feedback, you should ask for a feedback session or informal conversation about why you were overlooked for promotion.
I had a client who was passed over for a position she really wanted. She had been sure she was in line for a job doing member outreach for a union. “I had done everything right. Then a much younger woman was chosen for the position. She was at least ten years younger than me. I asked the decision-maker to tell me the truth. Was I passed over because I was older, more outspoken, maybe seen as a trouble-maker with too many opinions? The look of surprise on the manager’s face told me immediately I was wrong. ‘Not at all,’ she told me. ‘We chose ‘Chloe’ for member outreach because she speaks five languages.”
One bona fide red flag is vague feedback. If your boss can’t give you valid reasons that you didn’t make the cut, there could be factors at work that are beyond your control. Make sure you keep a record of any formal communication and note anything your employer or supervisor says to you. In that conversation, ask how you can improve or work differently. If your supervisor can’t offer constructive, useful advice, maybe it’s time to start looking for your next job, with some help from a career coach who can help you determine your next best move.
When talented people can find roles where they are rewarded for working hard and delivering results it makes sense to pursue those opportunities. Roles in which performance is easy to measure and tied to compensation and bonuses are appealing for many reasons (sales, business development, law, consulting, etc.).
While it is not for everybody, entrepreneurship and self-employment are alternatives. Black women are turning to entrepreneurship to avoid being mistreated, underpaid, and overlooked in the workplace (here are articles from Entrepreneur.com and Fortune on this topic). This previous blog on figuring out if self-employment is a good option may also help. At a minimum, creating a ‘side hustle’ can be a great way to generate additional income and develop valuable skills that you may be denied at your day job when you’ve been passed over for a promotion at work.
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