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Black managers in tech: 'You cannot be what you cannot see'

Protocol Workplace

Welcome back to our Workplace newsletter. Today: the importance of representation, lessons from flailing tech darlings, and employee appreciation.

—Amber Burton, reporter (email | twitter)

Black managers in tech

Alexa McDonald had only been in her position at Cisco as a Webex sales specialist for a little over a month when she was told by a potential customer that her profile photo was unprofessional.

McDonald, a Black woman, had uploaded her professional headshot to her email signature, which customers see upon reachout. In the photo, she has straight hair and is wearing a plain white dress. The comments she received from one senior-level customer shocked her.

“I probably send out thousands of emails. One email, the customer responded that she was not interested in talking to me,” McDonald told Protocol. “I remember the words: ‘You're young, completely clueless, your picture is unprofessional … I can't believe someone like you is working at Cisco.’ And she was like, ‘Stand up, put a jacket on, grow up.’ And it was hurtful. I didn't understand, but she made me feel like I didn't belong.”

McDonald said she didn’t know what to do next. Normally, sales reps would simply remove someone from the email list, “but this broke me,” she said. McDonald dropped the message she received into her Webex team space where her colleagues communicate throughout the day. Her manager, Nathan Clayton, also a Black employee, saw the message and recognized the customer response for what it was: not only inappropriate and hurtful, but also racially biased.

Clayton connected with McDonald’s experience on a different level. “When I saw that [message] come back from Alexa, I felt angry, as a Black professional and a new Black leader. I was embarrassed, ashamed, all of those traditional feelings that you get as a minority when you get attacked,” he said. “But what I felt the most was sorry for Alexa, because as a Black professional, especially in the tech industry, we've all got a similar story.”

His reaction was swift. McDonald said while one white manager listened and provided much appreciated support and empathy, McDonald was surprised to see Clayton take the incident up the chain of command right away. His process for addressing the incident could be emulated by any manager advocating for an employee from an underrepresented group:

  • Before anything, Clayton made sure McDonald felt safe and included, and let her know that the team had her back. McDonald said she felt the entire Cisco team rally around her.
  • Clayton then let her know that resolving the issue was his responsibility as a manager, rather than her own, and took it upon himself to share what happened with senior leadership.
  • With the support of his directors, Clayton sent communications to the customer’s leadership to make them aware of the situation. When he received an apologetic response, he shared it with McDonald and the rest of his team. “Maybe it was a small response, it was two or three sentences, but it was huge in getting Alexa to have that sense of belonging and true inclusion. And quite frankly, it made me feel the same,” he said.

Though McDonald said she was fully supported by all of her colleagues, she believed the situation was resolved quickly because she and her manager have a shared understanding of what it means to be Black in the workplace.

Representation among the ranks of an organization has long been known to have positive effects for employees, but an analysis by Protocol found that many companies still struggle with diversity at the more senior and executive levels. A recent study by the nonprofit organization Hue found that representation in the workplace remains essential to the work and tenure of BIPOC employees, especially as they move up in the ranks of a company.

  • Nearly 80% of BIPOC employees who responded to Hue’s recent survey said they are motivated at work by seeing others who look like them or are from the same racial or ethnic background as them in the workplace. And it’s even more important for professionals at the midlevel of their careers.
  • That number rises even more when it comes to seeing people in leadership positions who share similar racial or ethnic backgrounds: 87% of African Americans, 75% of East Asians/Pacific Islanders, 70% of Indigenous Americans, and 70% of Hispanic Americans say it makes them feel more motivated on the job.

It’s not rare to see representation dwindle as you go further up within a company, said Star Carter, co-founder and chief operating officer at DEI tech company Kanarys. The SaaS platform helps companies set metrics and benchmarks for achieving DEI initiatives. Not having representation at the higher organizational levels signals to underrepresented employees that their opportunities to move up are slim, Carter said. “You cannot be what you cannot see,” she told Protocol.

Through Kanarys’ work, Carter has observed that a lot of the companies that do have higher diversity numbers are mostly concentrated at the entry level. Because of this, it looks at policies, procedures and practices to better understand what systems are allowing biases to creep through an organization.

“Having Blacks in tech, or in any other industry, in management levels is absolutely essential, not only because you become more familiar with the hardships and the biases that are being put against folks on your team, but you're able to jump in with action,” she said.

This is something both Clayton and McDonald saw firsthand.

“I know exactly how it feels to be reduced to zero by something that's not your fault,” said Clayton. “What I was determined to do was to handle it based on my experience, and not what I've seen.”

Lessons from tech’s darlings

It’s safe to say many startups have had a wild ride over the course of the pandemic. Dare I say Peloton, or Hopin, or Purple Innovation? The list goes on. Pandemic darlings are losing their luster as overeager investors and company founders grapple with slowed growth and new priorities, wrote my colleague Anna Kramer. For Hopin, which recently laid off over 130 workers, the move to downsize workers was about realigning with the company's new direction. “Following unprecedented growth and several acquisitions, we reorganized to align with our goals for greater efficiency and sustainable growth. Unfortunately, that has meant saying goodbye to approximately 138 (12%) of our full-time employees in addition to some of our contractors and third party support,” the company wrote in a statement to Protocol. Though shocked by the decision, one employee said other organizations could learn a thing or two from the way Hopin handled the situation. It was a smoother process than he’d observed at some of the other companies that have laid off workers in the past few months.

Read the full story.


95% of employees quitting their jobs say the number-one reason is a lack of growth opportunities.* Learn how you can increase top talent retention, strengthen your onboarding process and reduce burnout on your teams with our report. *Source:

Learn more

Today's tips & tools

A bunch of us at Protocol are in the office together this week, and it’s wonderful to interact with co-workers in person again. But it’s become clear there are some kinks we still need to work out: especially hybrid meetings. Here are some best practices, though we are still very much figuring it out.

  • Test out your equipment in advance. Your conference room may have fancy cameras and audio sources that work really well. But you might not be able to configure them in the first five minutes of the meeting. Set everything up in advance so you don’t waste meeting time.
  • Make sure you have one audio source. If everyone is Zooming into meetings on their own laptops in one conference room, muting your mic is more important than ever. That otherworldly Zoom echo will probably haunt my dreams forever. You might want to consider a handheld mic that speakers can pass around, so Zoom highlights the speaker.
  • Pay attention to both the people in the room and the people on Zoom. It’s tempting to simply look at the other people inside the conference room; that’s what we’re used to. But you want to make remote workers feel engaged and included as well. Make sure you’re paying attention to both groups during a meeting.
— Lizzy Lawrence, reporter (email| twitter)

Employee Appreciation Day

Tomorrow marks National Employee Appreciation Day. And though it may be too late to order up some more branded swag for your team, there are still ways to show appreciation. A survey of 1,000 U.S. workers by gifting company Snappy found that employees do like gifts, but a little appreciation and recognition go a long way as well. Here are the highlights:

  • 52% of respondents said what they are most looking for is appreciation or recognition from their employers.
  • However, 59% responded that they’d be “more likely to stay at their job if they received meaningful holiday gifts from their employer.”
  • But if you haven’t sent something to your employees, you’re not alone. 72% of workers said they didn't receive a holiday gift from their employer last year, and 34% said they never have.

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95% of employees quitting their jobs say the number-one reason is a lack of growth opportunities.* Learn how you can increase top talent retention, strengthen your onboarding process and reduce burnout on your teams with our report. *Source:

Learn more

Around the internet

A roundup of workplace news from the farthest corners of the internet.

Gen Z is even more likely to job hop than older generations, according to a chief economist at LinkedIn.

Nonprofits are stepping in to help boost representation in the tech industry.

Over 50 workers got “jobfished” into working for a fake design agency. This story is wild and, yes, jobfish is my new favorite word.

Employees and leaders alike are still recovering from the trauma of the pandemic.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to Have a great day, see you Sunday.

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter said McDonald shared her story with senior leadership; it was Clayton who shared McDonald's story. This newsletter was updated on March 3, 2022.

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