One young black professional’s resignation letter has opened up the floodgates for others to express their feelings about the unfair treatment they receive from their employers. These young professionals are willing to share their experiences, but have chosen to keep their identities unknown for fear of jeopardising their current and future career prospects.
Thandi (25)BCom economics and finance (honours)
A University of Cape Town graduate, Thandi joined the graduate programme at a top asset management company in Cape Town. She was placed in the back office where “you would expect to find people with a matric or technikon diploma. Your boss would have even less qualifications, but with years of experience.
“Back office is mostly administration and support and, as a graduate, you want to be in the front office where you are more of an investment professional. That is what you studied for.”
White graduates with similar qualifications and no work experience were placed in the front office. “The front office is what we described as ‘lily white’,” says Thandi. “Only a handful of black employees with more experience worked in the front.” She has since left the company.
Thabo was headhunted for an executive position at an IT services company, but “there was no proper transfer of knowledge done for me and I could not ask questions; it was deemed stupid.” White junior staff members below him were given information and support, and it gave him the impression that he was incompetent and could not deliver.
Mistakes were not tolerated from black staff and emails and phone calls were monitored constantly. “There was no trust and you could suddenly be searched for ‘stolen things’ with no apology being given if they found nothing on you. This only happened to black staff members,” says Thabo.
When Thabo questioned his boss, he said the business was successful because of the way he runs it. “Sadly, with so much value to add, we are seen as wanting to take over the business, as being a threat, when all we see is our future and our need is to be part of success,” says Thabo. He quit his job.
Nomsa (26)Bcom accounting (honours)
Nomsa recalls her experiences during her graduate programme at a prestigious investment banking firm a few years ago: “When you start there, they make you write a test,” she says, which she admits she failed. A white girl in her group who also failed was not expected to rewrite, while Nomsa was. “She admitted that she did not pass the test,” says Nomsa.
While waiting to rewrite, Nomsa started working, calling clients as per her job description — until she was told she could not call clients. “It was differential treatment. The white girl could work without rewriting,” says Nomsa. She resigned immediately.
With an LLB in hand, Thembi joined a law firm in Johannesburg last year where she hoped to start serving her articles. The firm initially told her that it did not have space for her as there was a person serving articles already. “I was seen as a normal clerk, I had to wait till there was space for me,” she says.
While waiting to serve articles, a “white boy” joined the firm to serve articles. So she started sending out her CV. Then “they went through my email and asked why I was looking for another job after all they had done for me.” Ready to resign, she was told to leave the company.
Lerato (25) BCom
“It is a situation that everybody goes through, especially if you are young, black and female in a male-dominated industry,” says Lerato. “I have been undermined consistently with ‘plastic’ smiles.” Lerato admits that it is a battle getting recognition or to get a ‘job well done’ from her bosses.
“I recently asked my company for financial assistance to further my studies and my application was denied. This would not have infuriated me if I did not know that a few months prior they had financed a group of young white guys’ applications,” says Lerato. “The impression is pretty clear: if we train you, you will leave us for a better position,” says Lerato, who works in the automotive industry.
Busi, a candidate attorney in Cape Town, says: “The current South African workplace treats young black professionals in one of two ways: either with contempt or the insinuation that we should be grateful and not ask for more [in salary scale or benefits]. You don’t feel valued and end up feeling that you are simply filling the quota.
“I was in a law firm that was only too pleased to have my name furnish the letterhead, but my boss had no inclination to improve my skills,” says Busi. “So one knows from day one that becoming a partner will be a battle. I quit my job in the middle of my articles without securing anything else. [When I] started doubting my ability, I knew I had to quit.”
Sihle (23)BCom accounting (honours)
Sihle is a trainee accountant at a prominent auditing firm. When he was handed his portfolio, it did not include investment banking clients, where one gets the most experience.
White employees with similar educations were automatically allocated these clients. “I was young. I was too scared at first to go and ask why this was happening,” says Sihle. “When I eventually did, they couldn’t give me a reason. Granted, after three of these meetings, my portfolio improved. In the fourth month my clients started to change, I started to get the experience that I wanted. What makes me angry is that I had to speak up for this to happen.”
As a trainee, Sihle received coaching. “The white coaches spend the minimum time required on me, whether I understand or not. But they spend more time with my white counterparts and share their knowledge with them,” says Sihle.