Is My Boss Racist, or Just Being a Good Manager?

Last Updated Jun 27, 2011 3:38 PM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,
I work for a state supported college. I have worked there for 23 years. I have been passed up for promotion to the top IT job at the school 3 times in the last 9 years. Each time the top job comes available, the President elects NOT to advertise the position internally or externally and just appoints who he wants to have the job.
Each time, the position is filled with one of his cronies or someone with little to no experience or formal education or training in the IT field. I am an African America male with 30 years of experience in IT. My position is 3rd from the top IT position. I often feel that I am not afforded an equal opportunity to compete for the top job because of this hiring practice.
Also, I calculated that I have missed out on approximately $150,000 of income had I gotten the job 10 years ago. Is this discrimination? Also, is this a charge that the EEOC will consider?
Before this question could be answered, I had one question for the letter writer: Were the people the president hired good in the actual job? I know they didn't have experience going in, but did they do a good job once they were in there? My letter writer responded:

The first person was a great young kid. I was 15 years his senior. He was good in many other areas but lack wisdom and experience when it came to making important IT decisions. After 2 years the President moved to another function where he is very successful. The second person is also good in many other areas but not in IT. She admitted that frequently up front and was not shy in telling it anyone. She held the position for 6 years and was recently replaced by a third person after the President expressed his dissatisfaction with how IT was running. The new guy has a stronger muscular personality and has a manufacturing background but not an IT background. It is too early to tell how he will do.
At first glance, it seems that the college president has a group of people he's classified as "high potential" and he's moving them around to get experience in a variety of areas. This is actually pretty standard operating procedure in many companies. You may have no experience doing IT, but you've had a good track record managing Marketing and Facilities, so you get sent over to do IT and learn as you go.

This can definitely seem unfair to the people who have dedicated their lives to IT and never even get a chance to apply for the job.

On the other hand, this act of getting a job that was never posted is a direct result of networking, which I keep telling everyone that they should do.

I'm not joking. Even if you never intend to get another job as long as you live, you need to maintain old relationships and develop new ones.

To answer the question of is this racial discrimination, you'd need to look around the whole college. Is every department treated the same, regardless of the race of the people? That is, does the company president always (or, rather, usually--absolutes are rare) pull from either outside or a different department for the top jobs? Or, does he only do this when the next level in the department is a minority? If that's the case, then you probably are the victim of racial discrimination. However, if the pattern is consistent throughout the college, it's probably just the way the president hires. He's had mixed results in your department, but unless someone is unusually talented at hiring, mixed results are par for the course.

This, of course, doesn't mean things have to remain the same. You say you haven't had a chance to apply for the jobs because they have never been posted. A ton of jobs are never posted and that's just the reality. Here's how you combat this:

  • Speak up. This may seem really silly, but no one necessarily knows that you want the top job. If you're good at what you do, there's not much motivation to move you. Likewise, if you complain about stress or lack of work-life balance, the powers that be may assume the last thing you want is more responsibility. Speak to your boss and to the college president directly and let them know you are interested in promotional opportunities.
  • Be prepared to learn new things. While you didn't bring it up, perhaps more likely than racial discrimination is age discrimination. With 30 years of experience you're in that category of older workers. People assume that you aren't interested in learning new things and are just holding out until retirement. While this is utterly ridiculous (30 years of experience suggests to me that you're in your mid 50s, but I'm assuming), it is a distinct possibility. Make it clear that you are willing to learn new things. Combat the assumption that you are too old to learn new tricks.
  • Seek out new opportunities. You've been passed over at least 3 times for the top job in IT. Maybe it's time to look elsewhere. There are other companies that need talented IT people. There are other departments that might be willing to train you--the college president has shown that he's open to rotating people through. Inquire after this.
  • Ask what skills you lack. Managing people and departments is a distinctly different skill set than being the worker bee. It's possible that you do not have the skills necessary to manage, even though you are an extremely effective individual contributor. When you ask, be prepared to listen. Lower your defenses as it's likely you'll disagree with at least some of your manager's assessment. Even if his perception is flat out wrong, his perception is your reality.
If you look around the college and determine that it is only the minorities who are not being promoted up the ladder or you go through the above steps and are stonewalled at every turn, then yes, this is the type of case that the EEOC might be interested. (I say might because there isn't enough information here to determine one way or another.) Understand, though, that filing a complaint comes with a cost.

Yes, it's true that legally the college can't hold it against you if you make a formal complaint, but nothing will ever be the same. You'll become the person that people are afraid of offending. A truly racist supervisor will be angry with you and will find ways to take it out on you, subtly and within the confines of the law. A boss that truly wasn't racist will feel betrayed and confused and won't know how to react to this.

I'm not telling you to make your decision based on other people's feelings. But, I'm warning you that it's not a matter of filing a complaint and having the college president say, "Oh my goodness! We have treated you unfairly. Here's some back pay and a promotion." The college will feel compelled to fight it and you'll find yourself having to defend your performance over the past 23 years. Make sure you want to do this before you make that complaint. And go read the archives over at Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. Employment attorney Donna Ballman will show you what to expect.

But, for now, I recommend making the inquiries and changes above and seeing if that solves your problem for you. Or at least helps you understand where others are coming from.

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