Another arena where any white person can make a difference in their workplace is that of social networks.  These social networks are built on friendships among co-workers.

Social networks have a strong impact on one’s career.  In his 2001 article in Harvard Business Review, David A. Thomas reported that blacks who reached top management had wider and more racially diverse social networks than did blacks who only reached upper middle management. [1] That makes sense because social networks provide both information and personal connections that are can directly aid one’s career.

For one thing, there are always unwritten rules that govern acceptance in a work setting.  These often include what to do and not do when interacting with managers and supervisors.  They include rules about speech, dress, and procedures (e.g., never blame another unit, even if their lack of support delayed your ability to get work done on time; make sure you run an idea by everyone before proposing it publicly; always let Tim [immediate supervisor] have the last word in a discussion).

Social networks also provide access to the rumor mill.  In many cases the rumor mill obtains information about changes well before the formal system of announcements via memos or speeches by key leaders.

Wide social networks increase the likelihood of encountering a senior person who might mentor you or provide advice that you will not get from your immediate boss.

Social networks can provide a person of color with essential information at a time when a job opens up in another work unit.  That information can include how well people of color fare in that unit under that particular supervisor or manager.  It is important for people of color to avoid working for white managers who are hostile or indifferent to people of color.  Conversely, it is very important to identify white managers who are actually supportive of people of color.  Of equal importance is knowing whether there are biased white administrative assistants who will “lose” your requests or memos that you send to their immediate supervisor.

In general, the wider the social network with supportive whites, the higher the likelihood that a person of color will encounter a more senior white person who will choose to develop them or mentor them.

Lastly, working adults spend more waking time at work than in any other setting.  If whites keep a polite, but distant, relationship with the co-workers of color, the workplace then becomes a hostile environment.  If whites keep their distance, it contributes to feelings of isolation and  invisibility on the part of people of color.  Research done by NASA back in the 1970’s indicated that the biggest predictor of becoming sick on the job is the knowledge that you are likely to encounter conflict at work.  A work environment that does not appreciate you is a cold environment.  Knowing that you have little or no support increases the pressure to get things right.  This, in turn makes it harder to take risks or be creative. Creativity requires some degree of spontaneity.  It is very difficult to be spontaneous when you do not feel safe.   For this reason, companies spend considerable amounts of time and money having their people go offsite for team building activities (white water rafting, high ropes courses, etc.).

Whites who have little experience relating to people of color often keep a distant relationship out of fear that they might say or do something that will cause the person of color to call them racist.   This fear is very widespread. It leads many whites to be polite but not spontaneous. This is especially the case in relation to African American co-workers.  People of color immediately detect that the white person is not “keeping it real.” This is an added stress for the person of color – they have to manage that stilted relationship because they cannot really afford to alienate another white person.

As individual whites, we each have the option to form relationships with co-workers of color.  What is required is some courage and persistence.  Building relationships takes time.  It seldom occurs in one interaction.  It might feel somewhat uncomfortable at first, but most people of color are very responsive to friendly overtures.  After all, they are often in the minority in terms of numbers, and they need friendly whites.

One caveat is that we need to be real in our conversations.  Subtle attempts to let a person of color know that we are “not racist” usually have a negative outcome.   What works is the same thing that works in relationships among whites: real interest in the other person, consideration for their feelings and enjoyment of being together.  There is no need to start off by discussing race.  Discussion about things in the workplace and family are sufficient ways to get to know each other.  Sharing lunches in the corporate dining room or the break room is one arena where these relationships can develop.

At some point, though, real trust will happen only if there is a candid acknowledgement of the fact that race does impact the workplace in which you both are employed.  People of color get very tired of whites who live in a racial bubble and fail to take note of what is occurring daily around them.  That may take the form of failing to acknowledge that the levels above you are overwhelmingly white or that whites advance more quickly than co-workers of color with equal performance records.  Rest assured that people of color in your organization are very aware of any such discrepancies in rates of career advancement.

Remaining oblivious to race also shows up on those occasions when some racial incident takes place either locally or nationally and is widely publicized in the media.  These events cause strong emotional reactions that people of color have to manage while having to get their normal work cone. It is also somewhat crazy-making when people of color have to spend least 8 hours with whites at a time when they are reeling from another racist incident that might impact their family or others in their community. If their white co-workers fail to acknowledge what just occurred, people of color feel even more isolated.  In any true relationship a friend would acknowledge the event and ask how their co-worker is faring.  Whites who fail to inquire and express their concern demonstrate that they are only acquaintances, not friends.

One reason that whites often hold back from developing relationships with people of color in their workplace is that they believe that, at some point, they will be challenged to do something to support a co-worker of color.  This might entail overtly recognizing them in a meeting when their suggestions are ignored or they are interrupted before they finish speaking.  White friends can effectively act as gatekeepers in meetings to ensure that suggestions of people of color get that same attention that white suggestions receive.

Friendships that are vital have a measure of reciprocity.  At some point, true friends step in with support.  While many people are unsure about the notion of reparations for African Americans and Native people, any white person can take action in the workplace to develop the kinds of friendships that whites enjoy among each other but do not extend to their co-workers of color.  The act of developing relationships with people at color in the workplace is a step toward repairing a social relationship that has been marred for centuries by enforced isolation and exploitation.  One option for us whites is to lessen that isolation at work by going outside our comfort zone and developing a social relationship with co-workers of another race.  In doing so, we are building linkages that people of color need if they are to use social networking as a tool to the same degree that whites do.  This is a discreet act of reparation.






[1] “The Truth about Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters,” HBR, Vol.74, #4 pp.98-107