Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Learning Experience In Workplace Diversity

That's the way I'm trying to look at it anyway.

Last Friday, I was fired from my job. This was, unfortunately, not a surprise. I'd known for some time by then that I wasn't a management favorite and that fact was going to negatively impact my chances for promotion. It wasn't that I was actively disliked personally (at least I don't think so) but I do think management was scared shitless of me for reasons that had nothing to do with my job performance.

Best Buy, the company I'd worked for since March, hired me almost immediately when I applied. Why not? They were getting almost 30 years of retail industry skills and experience for an entry level pay rate. The problem came in when I watched as employees less than half my age and with not even 1/10th of my skills and experience were repeatedly promoted over me. Finally, after the third time in a row I'd been passed over for a promotion in favor of someone far less qualified, I said something. I went to my direct supervisor and asked him why I was not being seriously considered for promotion. This, as you might expect, was not well received. He didn't say it in so many words, but his attitude seemed to indicate to me that he believed that I should just shut up and be happy in whatever position they put me in because I should be grateful they chose to hire me at all. Since I didn't get a real answer from my boss to my question, I decided to try to use other means to get my answer.

Doing my own investigation into the matter, I discovered that this was a common management practice at Best Buys in general and it wasn't really about me, my years of experience, or my skills. What was apparently going on was that when a new position opened up in our store management would decide for themselves who they wanted in that position and then use their authority to disqualify other viable applicants such as myself from being seriously considered for the position. I watched the woman who preceded me in my position get promoted twice, despite the fact that her customer service ratings in that position weren't even close to mine. While she certainly has the skills to do the job, I also believe she was promoted over me and other qualified applicants mainly because of one skill none of the rest of the applicants (that I know of) could match her in: She was (and still is as far as I know) a major league management ass-kisser.

That was only part of the story, though. Because her ass-kissing was so blatant, so far in excess of anyone else in the store I knew of, what I'd learned really only told me why I wasn't chosen over this particular woman for those particular jobs. The real answer I was looking for was the one that dealt with me directly, the one that explained why I'd not only been passed over for the jobs this woman got, but why I continued to be passed over for other positions as they opened up. After a time, I believe I discovered that answer as well. This one hit closer to home, but it not only explained why I continued to be passed over for promotion but it fit the facts and my own experience as neatly as the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

Best Buy is by no means the first company I've worked for that will happily hire a transsexual woman to run one of their cash registers or work in another entry level position, but would put on the brakes when asked to consider promoting one of us above that level. While Best Buy as a company is far too large to presume that all of the management teams in its 850-something stores operate this way, it became quite clear that at least in the store I worked in there's a glass ceiling for transwomen, that Best Buy embraces diversity but only to a point. If you're a transwoman, they'll hire you and put you to work, but don't expect to considered a viable candidate for promotion, no matter how skilled or experienced you are. They want nice, normal-looking, acceptably diverse (read: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation) management and supervisory candidates and on that score, most transwomen just don't qualify and never will.

Granted all this is my own personal opinion, but I think the facts support it quite neatly. It was when I realized that the very same things I'd done successfully at other companies to prove myself and make myself a viable candidate for promotion just weren't working at Best Buy that I started to get suspicious in the first place. The attitudes and policies of various companies can and do vary widely, but there are at least a few expected constants, one of which is that you'll be judged solely on your abilities and work performance when being considered for a promotion. I don't believe that happened here.

I can make these kinds of strong statements because the evidence so clearly points to one, and only one, conclusion. As an example, one person promoted above me was less than half my age and had absolutely zero experience in the department he was to work in as a supervisor. Conversely, I had extensive experience in that department at Best Buy and at other stores, and was fully trained and well-experienced in all of the duties the job required. The person who was chosen for the job is a good kid. In fact, had I been the manager making that choice (and not also considering someone with my resume for the position) I'd have made the same choice. Nevertheless, I can't forget we're talking about someone who was still in diapers when I was in my first retail management position, and someone who had never even worked in the department he was to supervise nor had any experience in most, if not all, of the duties the position entailed.

The one inescapable conclusion with these kinds of blatant disparities at play is clear: My superior skills and training didn't matter nor did my decades of experience when I was being considered for promotion at Best Buy. The other candidates for this promotion (I knew them all), as well as others I was potentially up for, did not, could not possibly, have possessed the level of qualification for these positions that I do, yet I was passed over anyway.

When I started asking questions, things got worse. Suddenly, I found myself being written up (having a disciplinary notice placed in my file) for the pettiest of infractions, such as having a bag of candy in my pocket or for saying something innocently that would later, sometimes even weeks or months later, be turned into a reason to write me up for misbehavior. These were the kinds of things that few if any other employees were ever written up for as far as I can tell, but eventually it got to the point where this sort of thing was so frequent that when they'd call me into the office my first thought was always what I'd be written up for this time as I rarely had any idea what the write-up excuse du jour would be until they told me.

Finally, I went to the company's Human Resources Department about the issue, only to discover after about a month of trying to resolve things through that route that not only wasn't HR going to help me, but they were actually an outsourced company, not even an actual part of Best Buy, and had no authority whatsoever to effect positive change in any way within Best Buy itself. At this point, I had a choice to make. I could just drop the whole thing, keep my mouth shut, and just forget about ever being promoted, or I could keep fighting it out and take the next step, escalation to the District Manager. After long and hard consideration, I decided to fight for my job and for my legally-protected right to be judged based on the same basis as everyone else.

In retrospect, this was a mistake. Just as those making the decisions at my store weren't really interested in playing fair, so too did I discover that this attitude was also prevalent further up the ranks. The District Manager talked a great line, but within a few weeks of the time I'd brought this to his attention and discussed it with him, it became clear that I wasn't going to get any help there either. Once I knew that, I also understood that my time at Best Buy was limited at best because my store's management team was going to be able to do whatever they wanted to do with no interference from corporate.

By the middle of last week, I was making predictions as to when they'd finally can me. I'd read the writing on the wall and knew it was only a matter of time, probably no more than days, before they found something to justify my firing, at least in their minds anyway. Early that week, I'd gotten a call from HR in which I heard that I'd basically been accused of physically threatening a manager, a man at least a full seven or eight inches taller than myself. I denied it of course, it wasn't true. The manager who claimed I'd done this had been my direct supervisor and made my life hell for about four and a half months, but no one seemed interested in questioning his integrity or veracity in making this accusation (or others he'd made previously...this had not been the first time there'd been ample reason to question his credibility), only in whether I would admit to the charge.

By the end of that phone call, I knew what was going on and what was about to happen, that I was being set up to be fired and the company was trying to protect itself from a lawsuit and/or perhaps from having to pay my unemployment benefits by gathering "evidence" of misbehavior to use against me should they need it later. I'd been down this road before and knew it well enough to recognize the signposts. At this point, there was really nothing left for me to do except to wait for the axe to fall.

And fall it did, six days ago. It's taken me that long to compose my thoughts on this before putting them down in print. I guess the lesson I've learned here is one that after almost 30 years in this industry I should have remembered and kept in mind going into my time with Best Buy: Go with the evidence of your eyes and ears, not what you're told by the company. I made the mistake of fully buying into the corporate rhetoric I was fed when I was hired, that Best Buy was committed to diversity, that there was opportunity for advancement available for those who seek it (and there is, just not for someone like me), that I could depend on the company and the resources it provides to make sure that I'd get as fair a shake as any other employee. What I discovered, much to my disappointment, was that for all their diversity-promoting corporate rhetoric Best Buy is really no different from most of the companies I've worked for since transitioning, the kind of company that talks a great line at the corporate level but looks the other way when this kind of thing goes on at the ground level, far away from the shiny corporate ivory towers where the inclusive diversity rhetoric flows so freely.

It's my own fault really. I'd heard Best Buy was a great company to work for before I applied. I checked them out online and read much the same things. I accepted those assertions as fact and operated on the premise that all I had to do to be successful at Best Buy was to demonstrate that I was qualified, competent, and conscientious to be considered a viable candidate for promotion. I made the same key mistake so many of us do, presuming that a state law on the books protecting me from discrimination in hiring would also protect me from discrimination in being considered for promotion as well, as it was intended to. Clearly, it didn't work out that way.

Could I pursue this legally? Sure I could, what they did here (assuming I could prove my case in court) is against of New Jersey State anti-discrimination law. As many of us have discovered, however, knowing the law has been violated is one thing, proving it to the satisfaction of a judge or jury can be quite another. Add to that the expense of even exploring the possibility of taking this to court, and I'm already pretty sure that it's just not worth it for a low-paying entry-level job at an electronics store.

That said, I do have a couple of calls in to people who hopefully will be able to tell me exactly what my options are here and if it's worth making the effort to continue to pursue this. At this point, unless I hear something unforeseen that totally changes my opinion here, I fully expect that probably the best thing for me to do right now is move on, find another job and make the same kind of effort as I did with Best Buy to prove myself, hopefully with a more receptive audience next time.

And I know some of you are wondering, so I'll just address it directly: Was I the perfect employee? No, not hardly, but then I don't know who is. I'm not even sure there is such a thing. I do think I was at least as good at my job as most of the store's employees are at theirs, significantly better than at least some, and this was backed up by the perceptions of my co-workers to a large extent. I wasn't happy in my position, but I was quite good at my job. In fact, I never really had a problem at Best Buy with any non-manager which came to be seen as significant based upon anything other than the opinion of management. Things that I never gave a second thought to when they occurred because they seemed so insignificant at the time suddenly became major issues weeks or even months later when I'd find myself written up for them. These were things I'd never heard of any other employee being written up for or even questioned about, and in some cases I even personally witnessed employees doing exactly the same things with impunity which I'd been disciplined for right in front of the very same managers who had written me up for those infractions.

In the end, none of it mattered. It didn't matter whether or not I was right and they were wrong. It didn't matter that there's a law on the books that's supposed to protect people like me from being treated this way in the workplace. I didn't matter that I'd proven myself competent and capable. In fact, I strongly suspect that my resume and work record, as solid as it is, was just further motivation for them to find more reasons to justify passing me over for promotion in favor of more normal-seeming candidates. They couldn't find that justification in my work record, so they manufactured it in the form of disciplinary notices, just as other companies I've worked for have done when trying to protect themselves from charges of discrimination as they prepared to fire me. Were there a few that were justified? Sure, but I know of at least one manager with more legitimate write-ups than I had and they certainly didn't get in the way of his promotion to management.

And so, I move on. As I look for and eventually find myself a new job, however, there's one lesson from my experience with Best Buy I'll carry with me: For a transperson, and especially a transwoman, getting hired is only part of the struggle. The far more significant part is getting treated fairly once you're already employed, being able to enjoy the same opportunities and chances for promotion that non-trans employees do and being judged by the same measures.

In my estimation, Best Buy fails that test, despite all the inclusive rhetoric they like to spout and which the Human Rights Campaign happily laps up like a thirsty dog when assigning ratings in its Corporate Equality Index. When corporate higher-ups talk a good line about diversity for public consumption but then look the other way as illegal discrimination is practiced under their banner at the ground level there needs to be accountability. While this isn't being written as an attack piece on HRC, since they do publish the widely-accepted CEI I believe they do have a certain responsibility to look beyond the corporate diversity rhetoric and take into account actual ground-level experiences like mine when determining the ratings of these employers. Perhaps if this kind of thing could actually cost a company points on its CEI score we'd see companies like Best Buy making more of an effort to ensure that their publicly-touted diversity principles are actually put into practice when and where they really matter.

What disappoints me most of all here is the lack of honesty. While Best Buy as a company may seem pretty open, accepting, and above-board to the casual observer, once you actually work for them and understand how their system works, you also understand that Best Buy's real commitment to diversity is limited to only those kinds of difference which seem the most normal and accepted for anyone looking to move up in the ranks, or at least that's how it is at the store I worked at. While I hesitate to tar every Best Buy store management team with that brush, I also know that this kind of thing can't happen as easily as it did to me without Best Buy corporate allowing it to happen, whether by actively facilitating it or by turning a blind eye when they're made aware of it. Their excuses for not promoting me were manifold, the valid and verifiable reasons not so much.

What happens next? Who's to say? At this point, I'm focusing on finding myself a new job and not much else (another reason why it took me six days to write this), but a lot will depend on what I hear from those far better skilled in taking on these issues legally than I am.

There's one last thing I want to say on this topic, at least for now. Despite all the problems I endured while I worked for them, I liked working for Best Buy. With one or two notable exceptions, I like the people I worked with. I liked the atmosphere. I brought a lot of enthusiasm to that job because it was a place where I believed that my skills and my experience would enable me to succeed, that in the end it was all up to me and how much I was willing to put into it. Yeah, I bought that company line, hook, line, and sinker, so I guess it isn't so surprising that I was totally unprepared for Best Buy to be no different from any of the other companies I've worked for since transitioning. My biggest mistake wasn't in making the effort to be successful there, it was in accepting the Best Buy corporate rhetoric as anything more than just that, in believing that Best Buy was a different, more progressive kind of company than those I'd worked for in the past.

They say you learn something new every day, and I believe that's true. Thing is, sometimes you learn things that you wish you'd known before, back when they'd have still been useful. This was not my first encounter with the glass ceiling so many transwomen bump up against in the working world and it probably won't be my last. Still, I'll take the lessons learned here and apply them next time. In the end, knowing what I know now will only make it that much less likely that it'll happen again, or at least, that when and if it does happen again I'll be that much more ready for it and able to see it coming that much sooner.

When you get right down to it, given the realities of being a working transwoman, that's about all I, or any of us, can reasonably hope for.


wannatakethisoutside said...

Reading your story made me think of age discrimination as well as anti-trans discrimination. Did you ever feel that way?

Rebecca Juro said...

Certainly possible I suppose, but I dunno. While it might have played a factor, I don't think it was the key one.