Why Minority Employees Really Leave

We Need More Honesty and Fewer Myths

By Published on .

Tiffany Warren Tiffany R. Warren
In its Feb. 12 issue, Advertising Age released statistics from the American Advertising Federation on the percentage of AAF Most Promising Minority Student alumni who have stayed and have left the advertising industry. Although, as an AAF MPMS alumnus, I wrote in a letter to Ad Age editor Jonah Bloom that the focus of the article should have been on the 70% who stayed, I became curious as to why 30% of the alumni may have left. The article did offer "lack of mentors" and "pigeon-holing" as some of the reasons, but I knew there was more.

The anecdotal conclusions I have listed below are drawn from years of hushed cellphone conversations from empty conference rooms after exit interviews, interventions ("Don't leave the industry, it will get better!") after bad reviews from poor managers and frustrated job-seekers who can't seem to catch a break from general market or multicultural marketing agencies.

The Island of the Loneliest and The Only-est
People of color started out in agencies as the "the first" or "the only" and have now graduated to "the few" and "the several." I've had numerous conversations with other professionals of color who say, "Why should I have to compromise my individuality or what makes me special just to get along with my team?" Due to the profound isolation they may feel, people of color have had to learn to exist in two worlds. One world is where they can keep it "real" and be 100% of who they are and the other inflexible and homogeneous world requires them to dilute or dumb down what makes them unique. In order to be successful, they've had to not only be culturally flexible but twice as good as their white counterparts. They leave because this daily burden becomes too much to bear and often overshadows their work and lowers their morale.

Bad Apple Syndrome
One bad apple spoils the bunch. An ineffective manager and a talent-development system with subjective methods of promoting and training team members can wreak havoc on a fragile and well-meaning agency culture. When one of my mentees leaves an agency for another (multicultural or general market), they conduct exit interviews in which they will provide the HR manager with a standard reason for leaving like "more money" or "better opportunity." Then I get a call with the real reasons why they left. The number one reason is ineffective management and poor career development. Diversity training often focuses on the "Can't we all just get along?" approach, which may help a company in the short term but does not improve the management skills of its leaders. Effective training focuses on helping the manager manage not just people of color but people with different work styles and ways of thinking. Agencies should be focused on moving individuals up the ranks because they are excellent managers and not because of subjective reasons like "They have good ideas" or "They remind me of myself."

The "Once You Go Multicultural, You Can't Go Back" Urban Myth
Although this phrase has an unseemly and crass meaning, it takes on a whole new definition in the war for multicultural talent in the advertising industry. I offer you two sides of this prevalent urban myth. One side is that professionals of color who began their careers in multicultural marketing agencies have often felt "blacklisted" because they have no general-market agency experience and have found it difficult to transition from Multicultural Marketing Agency A to General Market Agency B. The flip side of the myth involves those individuals who began their careers at general market agencies but are terrified to accept a senior position at a multicultural marketing agency for fear they may never be able to work in a general-market agency again. You have to ask yourself "Who does this discriminatory myth benefit?" You decide. Regardless of this urban myth, if a candidate can't sell his experience and skill set to a potential employer no matter where he started or currently work, he won't be hired. In the end, this myth helps perpetuate the cold shoulder between multicultural marketing shops and general market agencies. Because of this, the agency talent pipeline may continue to flow in the direction of the marketers (clients) or entrepreneurism.

Professionals of color are often singled out by recruiters and human resources managers with National Geographic-worthy questions like "How do we track them?" "We can't find them?" and "Why do they leave?" The last question is the one they'd most like answered. I add that some of my assertions above are not unique to just professionals of color. People in general have left companies for the observations I have provided, but these may have a particularly corrosive effect on the retention of people of color in advertising.

As Big Tent fellow blogger, Carol Watson said, sometimes you have to "air the dirty laundry" in order to come clean and make real and long lasting change in our industry.
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