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Minority Professionals and Their Advancing Careers

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Whenthe Civil Rights Act of 1964 was first passed, there was a drive to put members of minority groups on payrolls. By now, the extent of our success is clear. While the numbers have improved considerably in some cases, other problems have been created. Well-qualified blacks, for instance, were much sought after and could name their own price. They often changed jobs when a new employer outbid the present one.1 Only the more mature and self-disciplined realized the importance of searching out a meaningful job in order to gain solid experience along with the opportunity to prove themselves and to enlarge their talents.

Now the frenetic competitive hiring has subsided some, and it's time to look at where we stand and how the next steps taken can be more meaningful. A clear goal is to find ways to offer promotion and advancement to minority employees. But before we can offer these, we must allow candidates the opportunity to earn consideration by demonstrating their capabilities. And in order to do this effectively, we have to overcome some of the management errors committed in the hiring race. We'll begin, therefore, by discussing the major mistakes and oversights displayed in personnel practices with minority employees of professional status. We'll also suggest some necessary actions to recoup lost ground and build stronger career foundations. On the mistake side of the ledger, we'll review the effects of overpricing, overprotection, tokenism, and showcase hiring. On the omission side, we'll discuss the dangers of inadequate or inaccurate responses, under-delegation, insufficient confidence, and arm's-length management. Finally, five recommendations will be made for effective career advancement of minority professionals.

Costly Errors in Minority Advancement

In discussing the mistakes made in the rush to comply with civil rights laws, we do not intend to criticize those who erred. Under the circumstances, certain mistakes were understandable, and in some cases there was no clear alternative. The purpose in examining them is to determine the likely effects on the victims-willing and unwilling-so that positive actions can be taken based on the reality of present situations.


Howard B., for example, is a qualified, capable engineering graduate of a predominantly Negro university. He is well trained; his grades were good; his personality is excellent. During his senior year, he found the opportunity to spend more time talking to industrial recruiters than in the classroom. Invitations to visit companies large and small, meet their executives, and discuss a variety of job opportunities were so numerous that he ended up with more than a dozen offers and might have had others if he had not stopped interviewing in order to get his studying done. All this was a pretty heady experience for Howard. He had confidence in himself and realized that most of the interest shown him was deserved. On the other hand, he was aware that at other times in history the situation would not have been quite so glamorous. As a result, he was torn between wanting to believe the interest was personal and based on his qualifications and the sneaking suspicion that the companies were playing the numbers game and had a different motive for wanting him in the firm. Regardless of the offer he finally accepted, Howard thus began his career under the pressure of self-doubt, which put him unnecessarily on the defensive.

Naturally, in making his selection, Howard accepted one of the better offers, balancing the money against the known characteristics of the firm he chose. He did, after all, want to work for an outfit with a good reputation and with senior technical staff from whom he could learn. It didn't take long for him to discover that he is receiving premium pay compared with that of other engineers at the entry level. This by itself doesn't concern him, but what he is asked to do is often less important and less demanding than some of his associates' assignments. This adds to his self-doubts and also undermines his confidence in his manager and in the firm. He tries to convince himself that he has made a wise choice. As his first year progresses, he finds that other companies continue to woo him. He receives new offers, some pretty tempting. If his personal concerns rise high enough, he may change jobs-perhaps more than once, should the situation repeat itself.

What are the effects on his career? The damage to his self-confidence, already mentioned, can be serious. If he remains with his first employer, salary increases may not come as rapidly as he has anticipated and their size may not match his expectations. For company management, at the same time, has to balance employee salaries on an equitable basis in terms of individual contribution. This will serve to reinforce his self-doubt and ambivalence about his position. But if he changes jobs once or more, his learning will probably suffer, and the first two working years, which should be the time for establishing a career foundation, will not have filled this purpose.

Over protection

A man could start at a higher salary than his associates with good, solid work assignments to support the added pay. In the case of a minority employee, however, the manager with good intentions may fail to give him difficult jobs for these reasons: "I don't want him to experience failure or antagonism, or to be hurt or to lose us business, or. . . ." But the learning experience of the early work years comes from testing one's wings to find out what can and can't be done. The best time to make mistakes is during the first year or two when they are not likely to be so costly for either the man or the firm. Thus the overprotective manager denies the minority employee some of the most important learning experiences of his life and in so doing undermines his career foundation.

The overprotection syndrome is most often seen in the sales function, where the black salesman may be restricted to minor customers and uncontroversial accounts. In some cases, managers have even called a customer to warn him that a black salesman was on his way. This denies the man the opportunity to test reality and thus learn the limits of the situation so that he can build his own method of operating that is suitable and effective.

The problem is dual. The manager is really trying to be helpful and the employee, a little nervous at the outset, may actually be grateful that not too much is asked of him. But the two are on a collision course. They're contriving an unreal world. Sooner or later, normal patterns recur, and the minority employee may not be equipped to deal with them so well as his less protected associates. The other extreme could be equally damaging-sending him to the toughest, least probable customers or putting him in impossible situations with little advance preparation. This has been done, too, so that the failure of the employee has been cold-bloodedly calculated.

But somewhere between the two extremes lies a course of action that leads the employee from simple situations to more and more difficult ones in which his manager provides full information beforehand, discusses possible tactics, and then gives him his full chance.


Some firms and some managers have felt it necessary to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the Civil Rights Act. They hire one black, one Mexican, or one Oriental as evidence of good faith and then argue that everything possible has been done to find qualified candidates but to little avail. This is tokenism, and it has an effect on the man hired. First of all, he knows or gradually becomes aware of his situation. If he is a serious professional, he feels used, and his inner confidence is certainly not helped.

More than this, the token minority employee finds himself in an impossible situation from a career viewpoint. He may find the atmosphere friendless and feel cut off from normal informal channels of communication. Even more important, he finds himself competing solely against Whitey, and this may be a ball game for which he is not prepared and for which the ground rules are not very clear. When several minority employees are hired, they can compare notes, exchange information, help each other, and compete against each other as well as against their white associates. Tokenism in the long run can only result in increased turnover among minority employees, which in turn reinforces the prejudiced manager's view that "These people are unreliable" and he doesn't want too many of them around.


The rather obvious placement of a minority employee in the employment office, the reception area, or some other showcase spot indicates that management is trying to prove to the world its lack of prejudice and discrimination. Merely placing people in such spots is not a particular hazard to their career growth; but it can be a signal that the system for implementing their advancement is not functioning. Moreover, the person placed in such a showcase position is often the object of a combination of tokenism and showcasing in that he has few qualifications for the work, little is expected of him, and indeed he has little to do but be there, displaying management's good intentions. This can be devastating to the employee. Whatever skills he has are soon lost and whatever confidence might have carried him through the transition period is rapidly undermined, to be replaced with bravado, rebellion, or withdrawal.
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