In Oct 2016, I returned back to the Plumbing Wholesale industry where I had previously spent the majority of my career. However, I was now working for a very small, private distributor with a single owner for the first time ever. This probably comes as no surprise to most of you all reading this but I had a fair amount of trepidation walking into this type environment for several reasons:
Interestingly, the plumbing industry is not often seen as a safe haven of societal change and advancement. (However, if you happen to know a place, please let me know in the comments)
Just by the numbers, working for a smaller employer has the likelier possibility of leading to career stagnation(i.e., l lack of managerial positions, sales positions, growth opportunities, etc.)
There were no African-Americans in positions of influence or power. (This is also very common in this industry. At this new job, the warehouse manager was Black but warehouse managers are usually excluded from key manager meetings or decisions).
I had previously been a manager of my own branch; This means, I already had the knowledge and experience and i didn’t need my hand to be held or to be placated. I wanted to walk in the first day and earn my stripes. I also would have liked expectations to be challenging, but attainable.
If I do run into racial conflict, it could lead to enough tension and industry blackballing to make me wish I’d never even took this job.
To my own surprise, I was amazed at how wonderful almost everyone was at my new job! Everyone was nice, and there wasn’t the usual pressure to be Barack Obama and Jesus combined in the first month.
Then, November 8th, 2016 happened…
It was the most awkward day in my professional career. My modus operandi had always been to read and observe people in new work environments. I want to understand who are allies. I want to know who is related (a common theme in small businesses). I want to know who are the enemies and who are frenemies. Idon’t want people to know who I align with and give everyone an opportunity to be my ally. Then on Election Day at least 3 MAGA hats appeared at work. As nice as so many people had been, I have to assume that you view me a number of certain ways if you voted or intended to vote for Donald Trump. Most importantly, I didn’t know how the owner of the business felt politically or socially.
I would later find out that the hats of xenophobian hubris had actually been, and still were, a source of stress at our job. So much so that after that day it was made clear that any type of clothing expressing political revere were off limits. Still, for me, the stage had been set.
Afterwards I began to pick up on the micro-tensions that I knew were inevitable. I graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Psychology. Most psych-majors majors at non-lib arts schools know that you essentially made an extended gift offering to your school’s academic fund with some really expensive book purchases included. However, I immediately began hearing the conversations that have trailed behind me my entire career:
“Just because you have a college degree it doesn’t make you necessarily smart or good at your job”
“Did you go to Texas A&M for athletics?”
“I’ve done my job for 2 centuries. I didn’t need to go to college to do this” “Trump is bad but at least he’s not Kill-ary Clinton.”
“I grew up in a ‘Black’ neighborhood. Most of the people doing all the worst stuff were Black kids.”
“I make my own money. I’m thankful Trump doesn’t want to give all of it back to the government.”
Even though this talk was ongoing, I was thankful to realize that the owner actually is not a Republican. I don’t politically identify as a Democrat but he does. We actually share a lot of similar views. He made it much easier for me to navigate my workplace knowing that he, and his son, who shares in leadership responsibilities, were essentially politically fluid like I am.
Knowing that I could enjoy my work space without a threat to my employment, I began to employ strategies on how to maintain my personal sanity while also sharing my values. Here are my thoughts:
Every discussion, debate, or fight isn’t worth it. Your primary function is to maintain or increase your company’s efficiency and/or profitability. Your job is not to feed the trolls.
If you choose to participate in these discussions, use them as an opportunity to share and educate. Note: it’s not your job to educate the ignorant, but if you’re going to go down this path you may as well be properly prepared. Share information and personal experiences presented on a platter of love and influence instead of on a sword. Lastly, you choose to support your side of the debate with articles or statistics be careful that the information provided can be verified.
Use these conversations to your advantage. Respect is sometimes gained simply by validly presenting your vantage point and experiences. You can gain unexpected allies and work capital that can be exchanged at a later date. Just be sure to not assume anyone has your best interests at heart and that, sometimes work friends don’t always translate over to “real” friends.
If you choose not to participate, be VERY explicit in your wishes. In no uncertain terms, express that you are not in this space to discuss politics. If someone is constantly trying to involve you in conversations that make you feel uncomfortable, express that this is harassment and you have no intention of being involved in it.