Bias, whether conscious or not, is a huge barrier to workplace advancement for Black employees. Not only can something as simple as a name prevent Black candidates from landing a job, bias can also make it harder to get promoted.

While many companies have finally started addressing these problems, sociologist and University of Richmond Law professor Kevin Woodson says there is another hidden barrier that impacts Black employees. In his latest book, The Black Ceiling: How Race Still Matters in the Elite Workplace, Woodson spoke to more than 100 Black professionals about what he refers to as “the Black ceiling” — the metaphorical wall Black professionals hit as they try to overcome disadvantages and challenges on their way to the top.

After examining the experiences of these leaders, Woodson discovered that racial discomfort, rather than explicit bias, is one of the biggest obstacles to success for Black employees.

“Racial discomfort is the general unease that a lot of Black professionals experience when they're trying to force their careers in these predominantly White institutions,” he says.

In an interview with Chief, Woodson, along with Chief Member Crystal Moore, Vice President of Brilliant Black Minds at Karat, discuss the many different ways in which racial discomfort shows up at work, what leaders can do to address it, and how organizations can continue to prioritize diversity despite legal and financial constraints.

The Two Types of Racial Discomfort

According to Woodson, racial discomfort falls into two categories: social alienation and stigma anxiety. Social alienation, he explains, “is the sense of not fitting in with your colleagues and employers because of differences in your personal background and cultural and social preferences, with respect to the things you are interested in and like to do outside of work.”

For example, if golf outings are the primary way in which colleagues within a company connect, Woodson says that could be a red flag, because there are racial disparities within the sport, since many people have not had previous exposure to it or learned it growing up. Not only is it one of the most expensive sports to play, it also has a legacy of exclusion — historically, Black golfers were often banned from tournaments, clubs and greens.

Research supports Woodson’s theory about golf being an exclusionary gateway for a select set of individuals to advance. According to one study, more than 70% of Fortune 1000 CEOs, who are mostly White men, said they’ve done business with someone they met on the golf course. Additionally, 80% of Fortune 500 executives said golf has helped their careers, proving that this exclusive hobby is often critical for advancement.

In addition to social alienation, Woodson says stigma anxiety is another form of racial discomfort that can really impact a Black employee’s experience at work.

“Stigma anxiety is the apprehension a lot of people face when they are worried that colleagues might discriminate against them and there is reason to believe their work and performance might be held to a different standard, or interpreted differently because of bias,” Woodson says. “This leads to a sense of anxiety, where people constantly have to remain vigilant about possible mistreatment.”

In many cases, whether intentionally or unintentionally, people try to take steps to avoid this type of anxiety. For leaders like Moore, that can look like changing the way you speak to feel more accepted in certain spaces.

“I can say that as a Black woman from Mississippi with a southern accent, I’ve had to fight throughout my career to feel accepted and say, ‘Crystal, it's okay to have a southern drawl. It's okay for you to frame things differently than your colleagues would,’” she says. “One of the biggest challenges is how can I, as a leader, show up as my most authentic self, and thrive without bending and morphing into what I see or think is successful based on someone else.”

While racial discomfort can be hard to measure and identify, Woodson says there are signs executives can look for to see if it’s happening in their workplace.

“One thing leaders can do is pay close attention to the social capital that workers are forming within their organizations,” he says. “When looking at the relationships between mentors and sponsors, are there really big racial discrepancies? Are Black employees being marginalized or isolated? Are they attending the same happy hour or networking activities as others? If they aren’t, there is a really good chance that racial discomfort is involved.”

Even if your organization is not intentional, we all have to look across the aisle and say, ‘Have I checked in on this person today? Do I see this person? And are they feeling heard?’
Chief Member Crystal Moore, VP of Brilliant Black Minds at Karat

Prioritizing Diversity Despite Budget Cuts and Legal Attacks

One way to solve for racial discomfort in the workplace is to continue to prioritize diverse recruiting despite a hiring slow down and legal pushback, says Moore. Doing this helps prevent any single employee feeling like the “only” at work, and it also drives success. Studies show that diverse companies outperform their less-than-diverse peers by 36% in profitability.

As VP at Karat, one of the world’s largest technical interviewing companies that helps organizations hire engineers, Moore’s goal is to double the number of Black engineering talent in tech. To do this, Moore says she’s intentional about leveling the hiring field so that all candidates have equal access to roles.

“I see it often in technical recruiting when recruiters are looking to screen talent out versus screen talent in,” she says. “In the world I work in, a recruiter may be looking for someone with a C++ background and three years of experience. Often, Black talent have non-traditional backgrounds and they may come from a boot camp, or they may have switched over from cybersecurity. So while things don't perfectly match, they're equally qualified. If you're in that role of power, it’s important that you are thoughtful about gatekeeping and how you're controlling access, opportunities, and resources for people of color.”

Moore emphasizes that beyond fair hiring practices, leaders must also implement ways to ensure the environment they’re creating is conducive for everyone to thrive. At Karat, she does this by having “know where you stand” conversations.

“It sounds more formal than it is, but basically every 45 days I have a 30-minute check-in with my team to talk about what's on their minds and how they are feeling about their role,” she says. These conversations create space for team members to share any concerns they may have, and it allows her to look for signs of racial discomfort.

“I think back to some of my early career days of being the only Black woman on my team. I remember being in environments where I couldn’t wait until 5 p.m. so I could get to the garage and cry,” she says. “Unfortunately, this happens more often than we realize when people are giving their best every single day, and they want to be successful, but for whatever reason, the culture and the environment doesn’t see them and doesn’t create space for them to thrive as Black leaders.”

Moore adds that while formal systems of accountability are crucial, it’s equally important to hold ourselves personally responsible for creating comfortable environments for our colleagues.

“Organizations have to be intentional. But even if your organization is not intentional, we all have to look across the aisle and say, ‘Have I checked in on this person today? Do I see this person? And are they feeling heard?’”