7 Practical Tips for Black People Navigating the World of Employment in the West Pt 1 | By Tola Makanjuola

Originally Written and Published on the 18.06.21

It’s been 6 months since I started a new role. I had a one to one meeting with my current manager, it would seem I’m doing well. Having had performance reviews in the past, I was taken aback by the fact that she had shared her list of questions with me before hand, which were all geared towards my satisfaction with the organisation and the role. We both made the assertion that we were making good progress, and working well as a team. My manager is of British and Ghanian descent. (Draw conclusions as you deem fit). 

Working from home, your mind tends to drift a bit, especially if you mind is restless like mine. As it would happen, I started to think of what my career trajectory had been like since leaving university. Eventful. And perhaps, uniquely mine, in some ways. 

But then, I began to reflect on the forces that had shaped my journey so far for better and for worse, and wondered quite seriously, what I could stand to learn moving forward. 

So, here we go:

  1. Don’t Be Naive: I’ve observed that the world of work is a competitive environment, multiple dynamics operating in a singular interaction. There are those you will click with, there are those you won’t align with professionally. They are those who will detest you because of your race. I found these to be fairly consistent truths. As easy going as I am, I never let my diplomacy cloud the reality of the world around me. This always helped me keep things in perspective, and to not get caught off guard. 
  2. Don’t Be Paranoid: Paranoia doesn’t help, it only threatens to obscure the truth and blur the lines between good co-workers and bad co-workers. I worked as a consultant a few years ago, and my senior managers didn’t really take to me, the feeling was mutual. I had one or two managers who treated me fairly, one happened to be my line manager. She was vitally important in my ability to navigate this ‘hostile’ environment. Which leads to my next point…
  3. Don’t Despair. Keep Records, Cover Your Back: In the words of Chris Rock in reference to his custody battle for his kids, “you have to keep recipes of love, you don’t know when they’ll come in handy”. As I have alluded, most of the managers I worked at this firm left a lot to be desired. On a particular project, the manager gave me feedback on two occasions that I would deem, “Void of accuracy and depth”. Fair enough, but if this goes back to my line manager, she’s going to wonder why poor Tola is screwing up so badly. So I decided I was going to keep records of my tasks, my multiple approaches to the manager to offer my assistance when I had finished what I had to do, my time of arrival (8:30, work started at 9am), methods of engagement with other members. This all meant that I could defend myself confidently, and it enabled my line manager to hear both sides of the story and come to her assertions. She was fair and reason, and was of good support throughout my time there. 
  4. Clearly Articulate What You Bring To The Table: If I were to ask you randomly why you are the perfect person for a role you have applied for, how well would you be able to articulate your answer on the spot? For me, I realised that this is an exercise in deep reflection, but also self belief. There is a difference between spewing platitudes such as ‘organised’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘hardworking’, and well thought through articulations that align your skills with the needs the role and what you bring in addition to that. It’s a painful exercise, but I’ve found that being able to answer this question exceedingly well, is all I need going into the interview. This answer informs the interviewer of your in-depth knowledge of the company, the role, yourself and your desire and commitment to succeeding with them. Why? Because these are key elements needed to answer this question at the highest grade.
  5. Set High Standards For Yourself: Navigating the world of work as a black person is a job in itself. That’s how it feels anyway. One reason for this conundrum is the fact that as the other, you are placed under the microscope of exaggerated scrutiny. What makes this quite ironic is the duality of falsehoods i.e. those scrutinising you usually do not live up to these standards, which they place on your afro/braids. 

Here’s a case in point: I applied for a role recently which required me to complete a piece of writing, that involved researching non-dilutive grants (money you do not have to pay back) that they were eligible for, to begin a project they were working on. (See fig 1 below)

Hmm..for profit organisations are not eligible for grants, except for one or two under Innovate UK which the lady ‘kindly’ gave as an example of what was out there. Secondly, the task sheet looked rather unprofessional. I figured she must have been busy, and put it together in a rush. “Think nothing of it”, I said. 

So I searched high and low for grants they may be eligible for. I even enlisted the help of those who I felt might know, no luck. So I listed the organisations I found and stated why they were not eligible for any of them. Then I used some creativity to provide some solutions. Apply for the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), or Crowdfund. I stated why they ought to Crowdfund, after all, a KTP requires a partnership, no one wants to go through that. I outlined further points (See Fig 2 below), cross checked my work, and with fingers crossed, submitted it the following morning. 

Here’s what happened. 

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