/ 5 November 2014

No one is looking out for black talent in the workplace

We hear and read in the media that black people are getting all the jobs. This is not true.
Although the proposed amendment is a good start, the department has missed an opportunity to transform the way executive compensation is determined and justified in South Africa. (Reuters)

I have been hearing some disturbing news over the past week about what is happening in some industries to deserving black talent.

There is a false notion that black talent feels entitled to seniority at a fast pace. I don’t believe this is true. Those who are great at what they do know that it takes time to hone their skills to be at the top of their game. They don’t expect to get into a company today and be chief executive tomorrow. They just want a fair chance.

But how do you get a fair chance where nothing is really fair?

We hear and read in the media that black people are getting all the jobs. This is not true. Of the 18-million black people who are of working age, only 10-million are employed. Of the 2.1-million white people of employable age, less than 200 000 are unemployed. This equation does not suggest black people are getting all the jobs.

There is the false idea that affirmative action is about kicking people out of jobs. The way I see it, it’s about creating an expanding economy. Giving a black person a job does not mean getting rid of a white person.

This perception is further exacerbated by the ads people see in the newspapers asking for affirmative action candidates. What people fail to grasp is the reason for affirmative action legislation in the first place, which is that some companies had to be forced to look for, find and hire black talent.

In the past they simply refused and said there were no qualified black people. Yet many people who begin their jobs are not qualified for it anyway, they learn on the job and become qualified while doing it. On-the-job training is one of the best tools available.

As a black person in corporate South Africa, you have to prove that you are good enough before your presence is acknowledged. Black people are presumed to be inept until they prove otherwise.

White people, on the other hand, are presumed capable before performing any task. Black people have to prove they are up to the task before they are given the task.

Black people have to be given opportunities too and not have to work twice as hard to simply be given half the chance of a white person. Someone who does not experience this and does not live it will view this as black entitlement.

We know that the working environment is not purely based on merit; the abilities of many black people have not been recognised within the corporations they work.

I recently heard of a disturbing story of a black person who works for a reputable firm in the financial sector. A senior individual was going to vacate the position; the process took almost two years.

It was a given that the person who would logically fill the post was a black female who had been with the firm for some time and had been performing some of the tasks. During the two years, she prepared for the position. Yet, when the time came, she was passed over and the job was given to someone who was her junior – and white.

A staff member in the HR department questioned this decision. The head of the HR department simply responded by saying the order to pass over the black woman for a junior white person came from above and there was nothing he could do.

Now this is the dilemma black people face.

There are so few black people in management and with decision-making powers that they can hardly make an impact on the lives of those who are starting out in their organisation and who need people to look out for them.

It is difficult to make it in your career when there is no one looking out for you, no matter how talented you are. Talent and hard work alone will not get you far – you need to find favour. Without it, the road to the top is slow or nonexistent. I am fortunate that I now have a senior executive who takes an interest in and plays an active role in my growth.

I heard of another case where an intern went to a financial institution where the directors talked about how they had produced the most black people who had qualified.

The intern then asked a question: “If you have produced so many black people who have qualified in this sector, how come there isn’t a single black person in senior management?”

He was told that his question was ridiculous. When his internship ended, he did not get paid.

Two months later, he called to find out what the matter was and they said there was a problem with his tax number. When he asked why they hadn’t called him to find out, they didn’t have an answer. He asked if the reason he wasn’t getting paid was because of his question. The conversation ended quickly.

He was paid that very day – and they hadn’t even asked him for his tax number.

It looks like there is a fine balance that people have to maintain – between being outspoken and the danger of losing employment as a result of being outspoken.