When The Boss Is Black

  • As a manager at the Xerox branch office in Syracuse, N.Y., Chester Howell supervises a staff of about 20, mainly repair technicians and clerical workers. All but two are white. Howell is black. A former copier-machine repairman who rose through an affirmative-action promotion plan, he ran into some resistance when he first assumed his higher job. There were fierce arguments with one of his white assistant managers. "He questioned every decision I made," says Howell. "He wanted to double-check everything."

    But was that prejudice? "Heck, no," insists his old antagonist, Vincent + Venditti. "If Chet wasn't a minority person, the relationship would have been the same. He wasn't the first black manager I worked for." Venditti says his run-ins with Howell were not the reason he transferred to a Xerox branch office in Manhattan. But he does believe "some black managers are too sensitive."

    The battle cry of the civil rights movement was equality. But in the workplace, the bottom line is authority. As more blacks move up into higher- level jobs and more whites find themselves working for black superiors, the two opposing principles can often collide.

    Considering that it represents a reversal of centuries of black subordination, the rise of the black manager has been accomplished with remarkably little upheaval. But not without some strain. African Americans who have risen through affirmative-action plans can face resentment from white underlings. Some white subordinates fret over whether black bosses will favor other blacks. And the stories are common among black managers of white employees who ceaselessly buck their authority or who go over their heads to complain to higher-placed whites.

    As a vice president at Rockwell International in Anaheim, Calif., Earl S. Washington oversees a mostly white work force of 1,500. "I find myself under the magnifying glass every day, proving that I understand how to run this business," he says. "All bosses are second-guessed," explains Xerox vice president Gilbert H. Scott, who heads a staff of 800 in the Southwest and California, 75% of whom are white. "If you're a black boss, you're probably second-guessed more."

    Collier W. St. Clair, a vice president for the Equitable Financial Services Co., was a district sales manager in North Carolina in the early 1970s. One of his responsibilities was hiring, but many white applicants balked when they saw that their boss would be black. "A lot of them didn't come back for a second interview," he says. "I finally started asking people if they would have any problem working with me."

    Since promotion is usually based on performance, the refusal of some whites to do business with black executives can be a source of frustration. David Grigsby is a broker at Merrill Lynch in Manhattan. When he prospects for clients over the phone, he does not always mention that he's black. That led to a surprise for at least one investor, who showed up to meet his adviser in person. He was "visibly shaken," Grigsby recalls. Not long afterward, the client asked for another broker. "It didn't take an Einstein to figure out what that meant," says Grigsby. Then he shrugs. "You have to develop a thick skin. You can't bleed to death every time something like that happens."

    The American Institute for Managing Diversity, a research organization affiliated with Morehouse College in Atlanta, offers training for companies trying to manage increasing cultural mixing in the workplace. Institute director R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. says racism is not always the explanation when a black supervisor creates discontent among white workers: "Sometimes people are not skilled at managing people who are different from themselves." As an agency manager in Atlanta a few years after his North Carolina post, Equitable's St. Clair presided over a 90-member office with just a handful of white workers. He found himself helping them cope with their minority status. Having been the only black in meetings of 300 or more people, he knew what they were going through. "Sometimes you just get lonely for somebody to relate to," he says.

    Many black managers say their biggest problem is learning not to bristle at every challenge to their authority. The armed forces pioneered the elevation of blacks to supervisory ranks after President Harry Truman ordered desegregation in 1948. In 1987 Brigadier General Fred Augustus Gorden became the first black officer to serve as commandant of cadets at West Point. While he was walking across the campus one day, a white cadet failed to give the requisite salute. Gorden paused. Still no salute. He could have severely disciplined the cadet, but he chose simply to talk with him instead. "I've learned to pick and choose my battles," he explains.

    But sometimes patience wears thin. If faced with a white employee who could not accept working under a black superior, says Rockwell International's Washington, he would help the recalcitrant employee find new work -- at another company. "I'm not going to tolerate it," he says, "because I'm the boss."