How to overcome racial bias in salary negotiations


With this post I address the raison d’être of this blog. It is both a critical and personal topic.  It should have been the first post I wrote, but it wasn’t. Why? I had no clue how to tackle the topic in a powerful and authentic way, without basing my point of views on stereotypes. That was true until I read the article – Getting the Short End of the Stick: Racial Bias in Salary Negotiations – from the MIT Sloan Management Review.  Let me recap the findings of their research.  It is an objective basis for the conversation:

  1. Black-White salary gap exists
  2. Black employees are more likely to be taught at an early age that life is unfair
  3. Black parents communicate to their children the importance of racial identity and prepare them for bias that it may provoke
  4. Black job seekers are more likely to negotiate with dissimilar others, and this is likely to work to their disadvantage

Now that we have the facts, we can make this more personal. I will use my personal experience. Here are some of the values I was taught growing up:

  • Value job security over higher income.  Which I interpreted as do not take too many risks. Keep a low profile
  • Lower your expectations and you will never be disappointed.  I heard someone saying “don’t think you can become an executive” at age 18, when they saw me reading a magazine for aspiring executives
  • Work twice as much as privileged people to get the same outcome.  Which is really to say that I am worth half as much.  I even had friends considering legally changing their names to sound more “white” to have a better chance to get job interviews.

First, I want to say that I deeply respect the values that my mom, family and friends instilled in me.  They helped me become who I am today, and I am proud of it.  Second, these values were shared because people wished me well.  There was no ill-intent, just a willingness to help someone dear to them.  And probably passing some wisdom they received.

And yet the question is; how do we get past this and succeed, when research concludes that your race will negatively impact your ability to negotiate the salary you deserve? The MIT Sloan Management Review suggests a combination of formal training sessions and the implementation of systems and structures to provide checks and balances. While I agree with the recommended solution, people of color should work in parallel to accelerate the resolution.  Here are some of the actions that helped me to overcome my situation:

  1. Break the routine.  I left Paris, France to get my first job in the UK.  In London, I was perceived totally differently.  This had a massive impact on me and my self-confidence.  I understood that the same person can have a different faith when he or she changes their environment.
  2. Find mentors.  I needed the support of my family and peers to strive growing up.  I needed people who understood the environment and saw a thing or two to guide me effectively.  The same is true as you progress in your life and career. You need the support of people in the know.  It may be the same or different people.
  3. Read autobiographies of successful people.  I did not know what I did not know.  What is amazing? What is possible in 10 years? I used to think that driving a brand new VW Golf, being a manager and earning $4,000 a month would be a stretch life achievement.  After reading autobiographies from great leaders such as Dale Carnegie, Malcom X, Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs; I dreamt much, much bigger!

The situation for most people of color is probably worse than you had imagined.  However, this is not a reason to give up.  Some people of color are able to turn this to their advantage. At Columbia Business School, members of the black student network typically get several offers for internships, they have guests speakers such as Pepsi CEO during their conferences, and are courted by companies such as Google early in the MBA.  With more people of color joining elite networks and institutions, entire communities will be better off.  The more people of color are in position of authority, the lesser recruiting bias, the easier it will be to find mentors and the more people will be inspired to replicate the achievements of other people looking like them.