Unwritten rules for young black women in corporate America

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by Nikita T. Mitchell on April 21, 2010

You’re exhausted at work and Friday can’t get here soon enough. Z&A is here to help with Power Pumps: a practical series on combating the problems we face in the workplace.

For young professionals, starting out in the workforce can be both exhilarating and intimidating. Coming from a world where success is outlined in a professor’s syllabus, many of us are eager to quickly learn what it takes to be successful in our new environment.  What I soon learned working at a top professional services firm is that the few days of orientation and training provided barely touch the surface of what it really takes to succeed. Instead, I had to discover these lessons for myself.

In any environment, there are unwritten rules that govern how employees work and interact with one another. These  rules can be unique to a particular organization’s culture, and learning these rules is critical to success. Unfortunately, too many of us enter the workforce without understanding what they are or that they even exist.  Catalyst, an organization that studies women in corporate America, recently published research on how what we don’t know can hurt us in our careers.

As I reflect on my experiences as well as the advice I have received from mentors during my short tenure in corporate America, these are the unwritten rules that have I have learned:

  • Be a strong performer
    While not exactly unwritten, this is one rule that can’t be overemphasized.  Nothing is more critical to your success than building a strong reputation. The strength of your network and the opportunities with which you are presented will depend on your reputation. You are more likely to find great mentors with a strong reputation.  Therefore, producing good work is the bare minimum to surviving in a corporate environment.
  • Observe everything
    As young black women, we don’t typically have access to the strong informal networks that many of our peers have. Within these networks, unwritten rules are often communicated. While this may not always be available to us, the ability to observe your surroundings and adapt accordingly is important.
  • Seek out regular feedback
    Perception is everything. Do your best at all times to avoid a gap between the way you want others to perceive you and the way they actually perceive you. This can only be done by continuously seeking feedback. Knowing what your managers and team perceive to be your strengths and weaknesses allows for continuous growth. Continuous growth will ultimately take you to the next level.
  • Step out of your comfort zone
    In an environment where few people look like you and even fewer have had similar experiences as you, it is necessary to make the extra effort to form relationships with your colleagues. Some will develop naturally, while others will take more energy. Attend happy hours, take part in new activities, join different groups of people for lunch, and celebrate birthdays with your peers. Building relationships is not only the key to success, it will also make your experience at work more enjoyable.
  • Control your career
    Nobody will look out for your best interest more than you. Nobody can help you accomplish your goals better than you can. From the very start, establish short-term goals for each of your experiences that will help you reach your long-term goals. Communicate these goals to your managers and mentors then hold them accountable to any commitments they make. Most importantly, hold yourself accountable to the goals you have set.
  • When in doubt, ask
    Hopefully, during your time at your firm, you have built a strong relationship with at least one person who can give you “real talk”. Ideally, this person has been in your shoes before and is more than open to talking about sticky situations. Whenever you find yourself in doubt about anything – from how to respond to an email that upset you to how to deal with a manager that makes you feel uncomfortable – it is better to ask for advice than do something you regret later.

Learning the unwritten rules in a completely new environment can be frustrating for us as young professionals. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you are often forced to learn through trial and error. As young black women, it can even become discouraging because we often witness the consequences minorities face as result of this approach. Our trials and errors are generally less informed and quickly damage our reputations, often resulting in tarnished reputations and delayed career progression. Nonetheless, focusing on your performance, managing your reputation, and building relationships will carry you forward as you continue to learn the unwritten rules to success in your environment.

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  • http://www.ladyd-thecommonsensus.blogspot.com LadyD

    This is great! I needed this in order little reminder that I can do it and I can do it well! Great Post!

  • Julia Mitchell

    That is how I feel everyday in my job. Always have to be stronger performer than others, control my career and I do hate stepping out for my comfort zone but I do to get a head. That is the world we live in as black women.

  • donettequaminaedghill

    Hi Nik,
    This is a great artile and it is so true and relevant. I am glad that you are able to put it all it words and I know that it will help someone. I am even happier that you have learnt these lessons earlier than most women do. Put God first and reach for the stars while at the same time realizing that it is he and you that define those stars and how bright they shine.
    Love always! Your Sis.

  • Antoinette Patel

    A well written article which aptly addresses the ‘real world of work’ not only for women in the field, but ‘young black women’, especially. I love the advice, re: ‘stepping out of your comfort zone’ – sadly this is something that we women are hesitant to do (and I am not sure why). Yes, socialize with your work colleagues doing the lunches, teas and girls’-dinners-together, one would be surprised at how much could be learnt about your work environment and those upcoming career opportunities. ‘Seeking the regular feedback’ is also a good practice for it shows that you are not one to stagnate but that you are willing to learn, grow and improve yourself. One point which must be emphasized is that of having a strong work ethic. This is ever so important as people silently observe you and listen to you (yes they hear it all) learning what your principles are and what you stand for. Continue to be community minded, giving of yourself and your time – an amazingly positive and holistic approach to ones self-development (an added plus on ones C.V. too). Treat every day as a learning experience and smile, yes smile and release those endorphins that will most definitely see you over the next hurdle that may lay ahead. Have faith in yourself, trust God always and continue to walk in your blessing.

  • http://zora-alice.com/ Opé B.


    “learning what your principles are and what you stand for. Continue to be
    community minded, giving of yourself and your time”

    This is so important. Especially in corporate environments, it's important
    to remember who you move up in your career ladder. This is critical to yours
    and your organization's long term success. I think a lot of the mess we've
    seen in corporate America is because people forget their principles and put
    money in the most important place.

    Thanks Antoinette for emphasizing this!

  • http://www.mademoisellemitchell.blogspot.com Nikita Mitchell

    I agree with Ope. I think that it's definitely important that we remember to give back to the community as you move up. Reaching as we climb is a responsibility, in my opinion.

    In re: to why women are hesitant, I think it partly has to do with being comfortable with natural and existing connections. It is easy to connect with the other young black woman you work with b/c you are both in a similar situation and naturally have a shared experience. However, when it comes to other individuals, determining that connection and finding/creating a shared experience takes work… not to mention, it is not always successful. And that can definitely be discouraging. However, it's just another hurdle we have to get over to make our experience more rewarding.

    Lastly, you can preach all day about the work ethic. It cannot be said enough: “people silently observe you and listen to you.” I learned this the hard way, as many of us do. It's better to get this lesson in early!

  • Sandra

    Great article Nikki

  • M. Harris

    These rules apply to everyone! Good work!

  • trevormitchell

    Nikita, this is very informative. I never really thought about it in such detatail so as to put it down in writing. You did a good job, i could not have said it anybetter.

  • C I

    Great article and definitely a much needed insight.

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