Hard work pays off. What you put in is what you get out. These are just some of the phrases we’ve all heard that are supposed to inspire us to pour everything we have into our work in order to enjoy the benefits of professional and financial success.
And so, we spend years putting in endless hours, working ourselves beyond exhaustion, subscribing to unhealthy cultures that demonise sleep and rest. We out-educate our peers so that our credentials set us apart. We immerse ourselves in all sorts of jargon and acronyms and we dress for the jobs we want so that when the opportunities we seek come knocking, we are the full package. Born ready.
But, what happens when we do everything we were told to do and we still never reach that promised land? When we’ve ticked all the boxes, worked ourselves to the bone, made countless sacrifices only for our years of physical, mental and academic investment to not bear the fruit we were craving, what do we call that moment? What is that feeling?
Depression? Despondence? Anger? Resentment? Sadness? What do you call this cocktail of emotions? Does it make us failures? Does it mean we aren’t good enough?
I’m a firm believer that hard work has a role to play in our professional success. However, where we fall short is in not acknowledging that hard work on its own will never be enough. We don’t talk enough about the roles of race, gender, industry-specific biases and prejudices, homophobia, transphobia, privilege, classism and of course, networks.
Because organisations don’t operate in microcosms, they reflect the societies within which they operate. Therefore, social ills such a race and gender-based discrimination will be prevalent in the workplace. And for the very same reasons, people will be judged for their education – including which institutions they studied at (as though access to education isn’t one of the many problems we’re faced with as a result of apartheid, income inequality, child-headed households, lack of access to healthcare and sanitary ware and so much more) and their English accents.
The relationships that you have in the workplace influence your professional trajectory, so much so that for some people, their inability to do their job doesn’t impede on their career success and eligibility for promotions. Proximity to power, when not abused, is a valuable asset in the workplace because it provides increased opportunities to learn, grow and be part of a leadership pipeline in your organisation and/or industry. Which is why we should all be concerned about the low numbers of leaders who play the role of sponsors for Black professionals in the workplace. It is a disservice not only to ourselves, but to other Black professionals as well when we do not show faith in them, help them learn, position and advocate for them and create space for them in the rooms and at the tables we have access to. It also feeds into the perception that Black skills are scarce, which we all know is lie.
One of the things I consciously remind myself to do regularly is to check my privilege. How many times have you brushed someone off, downplayed their input/abilities, not been willing to hear what they say or deprived them of opportunities simply because they didn’t look like you or speak they way you do or look at things the way you do or lack access to the material items you place a high value on?
For years, we’ve heard about the value of networking and attending work-related events after hours so that you can ensure you’re visible and a “team player”. Do we ever stop to think about the implication this has for people who rely on public transport? Or parents who don’t have someone who can look after their kids in the evenings? Or people who are battling mental health illnesses and who are unable to participate in these gatherings? Or members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are made to feel uncomfortable during normal office hours and don’t want to risk putting themselves in threatening situations because alcohol is known to escalate issues?
Yes, hard work is important, as is a good work ethic and continuously upskilling yourself. However, we need to evolve our thinking and our workplaces, because as much as organisations are all singing about how diverse and inclusive they are, when you stop to really look at it closely, they’re not. Success is still defined in a very linear way. The route to success is still as it was determined by privileged people. And meaningful career progression is still largely exclusionary and dependent on whether the people at the top are comfortable with the colour of skin, your gender identity, your level of attractiveness and your ability to toe the line.