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Are Your Bosses Setting You Up to Fail?

Black women are being promoted to manage chaos and dysfunction, and it’s called the Glass Cliff Theory. Here’s what to do if you’re on the edge.

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illustration of two ladies hanging off glass cliffs workplace related
Alexandra Bowman
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For Black women, the career journey is complicated and challenging, and although the widespread infusion of corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives are meant to make navigating the work world easier, they may inadvertently be setting us up to fail. Black women have managed to shatter glass ceilings at their jobs but now many of us find ourselves perched on the edge of glass cliffs.

Coined in 2005 by researchers Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam at the University of Exeter, the “Glass Cliff Theory” was birthed from a U.K. Times report that claimed companies led primarily by women executives were underperforming and corporate Britain would be better off if women didn’t hold executive roles. Ryan and Haslam’s research found that women were most often appointed to leadership positions when companies were already in a state of decline. The Glass Cliff Theory describes the practice of elevating women to executive positions during periods of corporate turmoil, then firing or demoting them when they aren’t able to steer the business back to success.

Whether you’re blue collar or white collar, in an entry-level role or are a C-suite executive, Black women find ourselves on glass cliffs more often than we realize. When Tamar* was hired by a healthcare agency, she realized she was the only Black person in management, an experience that came with its own set of microaggressions. It became even more complex when she was assigned her staff teams. They were terribly disorganized, she says, and trainings and paperwork were in disarray. When she addressed the issue with upper management, they essentially told her that they had faith she’d be able to straighten it out.

The issues continued when a number of her staff proved insubordinate and, in some cases, racist. When she raised more concerns with leadership, she says they admitted some staff had people problems, but thought forcing them to report to a Black woman was a solution. Tamar inherited a mess but got no support to clean it up. Ultimately, she quit but she second-guessed herself. Was she too sensitive? Did she try hard enough? The real issue: She was simply on the precipice of a glass cliff.

Researchers Alison Cook and Christy Glass from Utah State University found that people of color are more likely to be promoted to CEO in weakly performing firms and then most often replaced by white men. Of the 608 career transition cases they analyzed, only four replaced a non-traditional CEO with another non-traditional person. (Traditional leaders were defined as white males; non-traditional leaders were women and people of color.)

Anna,* a day care worker, was appointed to be her facility’s new health and safety rep without sufficient training and support, then demoted when she didn’t successfully fix the issues left by the last rep. Cynthia,* a social worker, was promoted to a supervisory position when a board member acknowledged management’s lack of diversity. As the only Black woman on that level, she struggled to be heard and taken seriously until she was pushed out for allegedly being a bad fit.

In her book Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion Dollar Business, author Pamela Newkirk looks at how misguided diversity initiatives have done little to create equality in America's major industries and institutions. Here are her tips for navigating a workplace as one of the few or only Black women:

Feel power in numbers. Many industries have employee resource groups and associations specifically for women or Black employees. “Join industry organizations and look for ways to become more knowledgeable about the field you’re in,” Newkirk advises. Build a base of peers who not only understand the work you do and can offer support in your career journey, but can relate to how Blackness and/or womanhood impacts it.

Find a mentor — and speak up. As you aim for higher career heights, it’s never too late to find a mentor to help you. “Mentoring is among the most effective ways to facilitate the success of employees, including those from marginalized groups,” explains Newkirk. “Although it would be ideal for managers to see to it that new employees are mentored, sometimes you as a person of color have to be the one to break the ice by reaching out and asking for guidance.” Developing a work relationship with someone who has helpful knowledge and connections is a wise move to navigate the ups and downs of your job.

Keep your own file. Whether for a positive or negative career development, “always keep records of correspondence: letters of praise, agreements, et cetera. You never know when you'll need a paper trail,” says Newkirk. Follow up on in-person conversations by sending a recap email to ensure you have a record of items and issues discussed, and save everything. If you ever have to prove that yes, you did ask for help or yes, your boss was dismissive of your concerns, you’ll have something to back up your claims.

In my own career, I’ve gotten better about speaking up when expectations on me aren’t realistic or fair. It can be difficult to call out these issues, especially when the executive powers-that-be don’t realize the precipice they’re putting you on.

At a recent speaking engagement, I addressed a childcare worker group whose management is all white, but whose frontline staff are primarily Black women. While introducing me, the CEO noted the disparity and promised to put more Black women in executive positions to better reflect the demographics of the company. Though that was a noble statement, I made sure to reference the Glass Cliff Theory during my talk.

“It’s utterly irresponsible to bring Black women into management simply to show you’ve changed. Provide support, provide room to rebound from mistakes and provide space for these women’s voices to be heard and respected,” I said.

At the end of the night, the CEO thanked me profusely for explaining the theory and providing tangible takeaways. As I shook her hand, I thought about all the women before me who’ve slid from career heights, and I hoped my words that night saved at least one Black woman from suffering a similar fate on the edge of a glass cliff.

*Names have been changed.