In September 2020, a Citigroup study calculated that two decades of discrimination against African Americans, starting in 2000, had cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion. Racism has a personal as well as organisational cost. This is the true story of Mark Johnson, a Black man from the United States. Mark’s name and employer have been disguised to protect identities. By Ashish Mohan
While in his sophomore year of college, Mark began working for a global telecommunications company in the United States. Mark worked in the telemarketing unit, selling communications plans to customers. His pay was good: he was making double the money a degree-holder would make in an entry-level job. The company paid its sales representatives (called ‘reps’ within the company) an hourly wage plus performance incentives. Reps typically made 70 to 100 customer phone calls per day.
The supervisor development program
Mark liked his work at the firm and began taking his job more and more seriously. He worked hard, and never missed a day of work. He soon began winning awards for meritorious work.
After three years of working with the firm, Mark decided to enrol in the company’s supervisor development program in order to train to be a supervisor. At this time, there were only four Black reps at the company’s local facility. There were no Black supervisors, but there was one Black manager in upper-level management. The total workforce at the facility numbered in excess of 200.
If you did well in the supervisor development program, you would normally be promoted to a supervisor position. But if you did not do well, you went back to being a rep and making phone calls.
Mark did extremely well in the training program. In addition to having great supervisory skills, Mark was a real people person. He had a great sense of humour, and was always friendly toward everyone around him at work. As a result, people warmed to his manner and many of his peers considered him a natural fit for a supervisory role.
A puzzling mystery
As the months passed, many of the program candidates were promoted to supervisor positions. Despite his outstanding performance, Mark was not promoted. Candidates who had not done as well as him in the training program were promoted. Candidates with much less knowledge and experience than him were promoted. Even candidates with as little as five or six months of experience were promoted to supervisor. All the candidates promoted happened to be White.
It all stank of unfairness to Mark. He knew he was just as good or better than the candidates who had been promoted. They were all now enjoying greater responsibility and earning much more than him.
Mark would go home feeling increasingly frustrated. He was now married and had two children. He had growing expenses at home. Financially, he needed the promotion. It was as if someone in management did not want him to succeed. He did not want to think about the fact that his race probably had a lot to do with his problem. But more and more, he felt it was the only reason he wasn’t getting promoted.
There was very little Mark could do about the injustice. Complaining was out of the question. If he complained to local or corporate HR, there could be vendettas against him, his work life could get unpleasant, and he could even lose his job. That’s the way it worked at the firm. Whenever anyone complained about a manager, that employee was quietly terminated within a few weeks.
Drowning in ‘C’ reps
Two years afters completing the supervisor development program (and five years after joining the firm), Mark was finally made supervisor. Mark felt that whoever had been trying to block his promotion could not do so anymore for fear of exposing themselves. They would have exposed to the world just how biased and unfair the promotion process was.
Being made supervisor felt like a victory of sorts to Mark. He had managed to convert all the negativity deployed against him into fuel to energise his journey toward his goals. His endurance in the face of overwhelming odds had resulted in him finally getting the promotion.
But Mark’s happiness didn’t last long. Upon becoming supervisor, he soon realised that he was making less money than he did as a rep.
The firm had many different work processes (called ‘programs’ within the company), and some were more lucrative than others for reps as well as supervisors. Certain programs were considered more high-value, and hence offered better incentives for teams. Mark was given the lowest of the first-level programs—the least lucrative program—to look after.
In addition to being given the worst program, Mark was given rookies as team members. These brand new employees had little, if any, knowledge or experience, so Mark had a to spend a considerable part of his time training them and bringing them up to speed.
Reps at the firm were classified into three categories: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. ‘A’ reps were the most knowledgeable, experienced, productive and high-performing reps. The company normally assigned these reps to high-value programs. ‘B’ reps were average performers, and depending on their subsequent performance, they either went up (were promoted to better programs) or down (assigned to low-value programs). ‘C’ reps were the poorest performers in the company; they often required a great deal of supervision, ongoing training and support to reach minimum sales targets.
Mark found that he was always given ‘C’ reps for his team. Despite this injustice, he was given the same target as all the other supervisors—to make 1000 sales every two weeks. Other supervisors and their teams were meeting and even exceeding that target. But Mark’s team never came close to achieving the target.
Since Mark’s team never met its target, Mark never got an incentive cheque. Since a large component of the salespeople’s pay was incentives, Mark was now making less money than he did as a rep. When he was a rep, Mark’s pay depended on his own performance. Now that he was a supervisor, his pay depended on how well his team did.
Six years passed in this fashion. It had been six years of monumental struggle for Mark. In the six years, his team had met its target only on two occasions. It all took a terrible emotional and financial toll on Mark, but he kept going in order to provide for his growing family. He now had five children. He was trying to build a future for him and his family. Even though racism was slapping him in the face, even though he wanted to complain and hold somebody accountable, he felt it was best if he just put his head down, kept quiet, and went on as before.
After 11 years with the company, Mark left. He knew he was being discriminated against because of his race, and he was tired of it. He had gotten a job offer from another global telecommunications giant. He was going to be hired as a supervisor at his new company.
A chance encounter
Fifteen years after leaving his original employer, Mark was attending a barbeque at a friend’s house. As he was standing near the food table, getting ready to get something to eat, he a noticed a man looking at him closely.
After helping himself to some food, Mark again glanced toward the man. The man was still staring at him. Mark now noticed that the man looked vaguely familiar. Before Mark could react, the man made his way over to him. He looked at Mark and said, “You got messed over.”
“Yeah?” said Mark. He now realised the man was Alvin, an IT professional who used to work at the firm during his time at the company.
“You don’t have any idea,” said Alvin. “I was in all of the business meetings. I was in charge of routing calls to teams. When you were trying to become a supervisor, whenever Lance uttered your name, he always used the word ‘nigger’ before or after your name.” Lance had been the centre director—the top manager— at the facility.
Mark was speechless. The revelation was a shock to him because Lance had always been friendly toward him, smiling and shaking his hand whenever they crossed each other at the office.
Alvin continued, “Lance didn’t want you to become a supervisor. He knew you would rise very fast through the system. So many times, he would make sure you got the worst people. He was trying to get you to quit. The reason I’m telling you this now is because I always felt guilty about what happened to you. I couldn’t speak up for you because I was afraid. I was afraid if I exposed Lance I might lose my job. I do apologise.”
“That’s okay,” said Mark quietly. ❧
- The case above is based on a true story told first-hand to management consultant Ashish Mohan, as part of a wider study he is currently conducting on racial discrimination in the workforce.