The standard advice for job seekers is to know your company, research the competition, and to seek out educational and networking opportunities.
Such strategies can be more important for African Americans than for the majority, say experts in minority recruitment and hiring. Try these tips to help you advance in your career.
Learn About Your Company
To advance your career, you've got to put yourself in position to move up. As part of your interview prep, prepare specific questions to find out how diverse the company is, says New Jersey-based HR consultant Charles Wilkins. Your research sources might include the Web, annual reports, speaking with people in the industry and requesting statistics from the organization's human resources department.
At interview's end, after you've established your credentials and developed rapport, ask about diversity initiatives. Wilkins suggests, "Tell me about minority people who have achieved mobility in your organization" as a good lead-in. Then ask, "Is the company meeting its diversity goals?" But be sure to "sell your skills first, not your race," he cautions.
Share Your Gifts
Dallas-based career-development expert, consultant and author Daphne Houston, PhD, emphasizes identifying your gifts and talents. "Your skills will get you your job, but your gifts will separate you from others," she says.
Traits some might perceive as a workplace disadvantage -- being African American, for example -- can often be a blessing. "The experiences we've had -- slavery, freedom, picking ourselves up by our bootstraps, being the first person in our family to go to college, having a culturally rich family -- can be unique," Houston says. "If you were raised with 12 brothers and sisters, you'll have gifts like sharing or time and space management that you bring to the table."
Another gift is trend tracking. "Be aware of what goes on around you -- then figure out how it affects your industry or market," Houston suggests. "Urban African Americans tend to undervalue what they see. But changes in clothing, music, real estate -- all of these are opportunities your company might seize."
Invest in Your Professional Development
Joining industry organizations, as well as reading and contributing to trade journals are good ways to develop both your expertise and network. Take advantage of reimbursement for continuing-education courses, memberships or subscriptions. African Americans nearing the CEO level should consider joining the Executive Leadership Council & Foundation, a support network and leadership forum with members from more than 120 major corporations.
Many companies offer fast track or "high potential" programs for upwardly mobile employees. You'll want to learn about those as soon as possible.
Be Part of Your Community
At many companies, participating in community activities is important. "The key is to give unselfishly of your time and represent your company well in the community," says Floyd McCoy, retired from IBM's business education unit and past president of the Fairfield County (Connecticut) chapter of Sigma Pi Phi, an African American professional fraternity. "Don't be afraid to approach people, whether you're in the workplace or at a social event. If you tell your story, they'll see you as a real person."
McCoy recalls talking to his division's president at a social event. "I learned he was a poor Italian immigrant who'd worked his way up, and he learned my story," he says. "When an opportunity came up later in the company, he remembered me, my background and my accomplishments."
From top executives down, everyone adapts to a corporate culture. For African Americans, this may require sacrificing some individual gestures, such as wearing braids or African outfits. "What's fine on weekends can be touchy in the office," McCoy says. "But the corporate culture is the same for everybody."