Black Sales Reps Face Challenges Their Managers Overlook

Bias shapes interactions with coworkers and customers alike.
Brian Nordli
August 14, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020
Brian Nordli
August 14, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020

Shelton Banks remembers his first job in tech sales for the excitement of starting work in a new industry. He remembers the happy hour drinks with his coworkers, and the commission checks he earned.

He also remembers the moment he realized tech sales has a diversity problem.

The first signs that his experience as a Black sales rep might be different appeared during the hiring process. Banks had previously worked as a branch manager for Chase Bank, where he had earned his investment license and led a team. Yet, the hiring managers interviewing him for his first tech sales job felt he should start out as an entry-level business development rep to learn the ropes.

At the time, Banks took it as a challenge to master the sales process and rake in commission. Only looking back on the experience did he realize he wasn’t being given the benefit of the doubt that other candidates were given.

“I just noticed across all of tech that it’s predominantly white, and its customers are predominantly white.”

But the moment that sticks out clearest in his mind involved a sale he made to a hair salon on Chicago’s South Side. Having grown up in the area, he knew the business well and knew it thrived within the community. That made it a perfect fit for his company, which offered deals on services from local businesses.

However, when his white manager reviewed the sale and Googled the business, all he could see were the bars on the windows.

“I remember them telling me, ‘We don’t want to put this on [the website],’” Banks recalled. “And I just noticed across all of tech that it’s predominantly white, and its customers are predominantly white.”

The experience put the tech industry’s diversity problems into focus for Banks, who is now the CEO of re:work training, a tech sales training program dedicated to helping residents of Chicago’s South and West side neighborhoods find work in the industry.

Tech has long struggled with fostering diversity and inclusion across all teams, but sales ranks among the least diverse career fields across all industries. A recent Bureau of Labor Management report found that 79.8 percent of employees in sales are white, compared to just 11.2 percent of employees who are Black.

For people of color stepping into sales roles, that lack of diversity can shape the experience in ways both subtle and overt. It could require daily code switching to fit in, being looked over for promotions without feedback; or putting up with racist customers without a manager who understands.

“I don’t think individuals who make it in the tech industry would view working in tech as a negative experience,” Banks said. “But I do think there are moments that are unfair. There are moments that you realize something is different about the experience. The cultural nuances don’t line up.”

If sales leaders are serious about building more diverse sales teams, they need to understand how race and identity affects a salesperson’s experience.

 

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Black Candidates Often Don’t Get the Benefit of the Doubt

Two sales candidates walk into a job interview at a tech startup: One is Black, the other is white.

The Black candidate attended the University of Illinois–Chicago, while the white candidate went to the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign. The white candidate was in a frat and used words like “Bro, dude, totally” during the interview, while the Black candidate also spoke informally, like he would among friends. Both candidates proved to have the chops to be sales professionals.

Who got the job?

This isn’t a hypothetical thought experiment. Jabril Baker recalls both interviews from his time as a sales trainer for the same company Banks worked for. Baker, who is Black, grew up in a middle-class household and attended an integrated high school. He could identify with both candidates. His colleague, who was white, could not.

After the interviews, Baker felt both candidates deserved to be hired. His colleague agreed on the white candidate, but disagreed on the Black candidate, only saying that he wasn’t a “good fit.” Since both managers needed to be in agreement to hire someone, the white candidate got the job.

“That always stuck with me because it was like life was playing a trick on me,” Baker said. “They had the same experience, their resumes were the same, but the difference was the name and how the African-American candidate presented himself. It’s just how he spoke. I understood it, and the other manager didn’t.”

The experience underscores the obstacles Black sales candidates can face on teams that lack diversity. For starters, sales job postings are often written in terms that can exclude qualified candidates, Banks said. Due to the industry’s current lack of representation, many who grow up in predominantly Black communities aren’t exposed to tech sales terminology, and some never even think of tech sales as a career option.

“The people interviewing me didn’t see any transferable skills in me at all.”

As a result, it can trigger a feeling of impostor syndrome when job descriptions include a requirement like, “Must maintain accurate records of sales development activity in Salesforce.” Applicants may conclude that they’re not qualified for the job even though they have the skills to document sales transactions, or could easily pick them up, Banks said.

Once a Black sales candidate steps into a role, the experience they bring may not be appropriately valued, either.

At Banks’ first tech sales job, he noticed how, despite his managerial experience at Chase Bank, he was treated as equivalent to a college grad with no work history. It was something he didn’t see happen to white colleagues.

“The people interviewing me didn’t see any transferable skills in me at all,” Banks said. “When I look back at others in the industry, the benefit of the doubt from a transferable skill set isn’t given to people of color.”

 

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Image; Shuttesrtock

What That Means for Career Growth

Those experiences can also limit career growth for Black sales professionals. Baker was one of two Black salespeople at his company to make it into a manager role as a trainer. In order to earn his promotion, he had to prove he could excel as an individual contributor first. It would seem like a necessary stepping stone to earn the role, but Baker said he often saw other white colleagues earn the trainer position despite less success as an individual contributor.

Once in the position, he said, he routinely found himself passed over for promotions without any explanation of what he could be doing better. He also didn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it came to his skills and experience.

This presented itself in subtle ways. Baker recalled how his colleagues on the sales training team didn’t take him seriously until he impressed them by walking them through his sales process and cadences. He also referred 10 people for sales positions throughout his time with the company, but only two ever made it to interview — less than any other colleague, he said. It made him feel like his opinion wasn’t respected.

“I do think, at times, the color of my skin prevented me from being looked at as serious or being considered for promotions.”

Looking back on the experience, though, Baker doesn’t believe any of it was intentional. Instead, it was the result of a homogenous workplace culture. A lack of diverse leadership can create situations where employees from cultures different from the majority are misunderstood or evaluated unfairly.

“I do think, at times, the color of my skin prevented me from being looked at as serious or being considered for promotions,” Baker said. “When you have people who didn’t grow up the same and you guys try to have a meaningful conversation, you can speak English but not speak the same language.”

Banks experienced similar barriers to growth. Even after becoming a mentor and working on a team focused on new products, he was looked over for a promotion into management without any explanation.

Eventually it became clear to him that he wouldn’t be able to grow through the company’s ranks.

“It was like: ‘Why do I gotta fight? Everybody else around me isn’t fighting as hard,’” Banks said. “So that culture becomes difficult because you know how hard you have to fight. You quickly feel a stereotype threat.”

 

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Navigating Sales Without a Mentor

After about five years of sales experience and a promotion into enterprise sales for a new company, Chantel George didn’t know what came next.

She took her first job as a business development rep for a major tech startup as a way to make money while she studied for her LSATs, but she quickly found that she was good at it and enjoyed the work. So, she decided to turn it into a career.

But without any women of color in sales management positions at the companies she worked for, she found herself drifting from one promotion to the next without a clear picture of what a long-term sales career could look like.

“I can guarantee that most women who end up dropping out of this career altogether are still doing something that’s business-focused, because that muscle and how they’re made up, it doesn’t dissipate.”

After reaching out to other women of color in sales on LinkedIn for career advice, she put together a dinner and hosted it in a sunlit living room she rented in Harlem. She invited 10 women to come and share their sales stories. She had a hunch that she wasn’t alone in feeling lost without a mentor.

“I wanted to give them this experience because I felt like we were all in the same emotional boat, where we were doing this role that a lot of us stumbled into and didn’t know what it looked like to become an executive,” George said.

For all of the sales profession’s abysmal numbers when it comes to diversity, the percentage of people of color in managerial positions is even smaller. That lack of representation in leadership creates a situation where women of color have one foot in the profession and one foot out, George said.

It can be hard to know what steps to take to become a VP of sales when there’s no one to ask. As a result, many women of color end up leaving the profession — to the loss of the tech companies, George said.

“I can guarantee that most women who end up dropping out of this career altogether are still doing something that’s business-focused, because that muscle and how they’re made up, it doesn’t dissipate,” George said. “It’s just that the culture stifled it.”

The community George experienced at that dinner served as the foundation she needed to launch Sistas in Sales, a network for women of color in sales, which will be hosting a virtual summit in September.

Her goal is to give women a community they can come to for the support and mentorship that they may be missing in their own workplaces, and, as a result, find long-term success in their careers.

Diversity in LeadershipWithout Diverse Leadership, Tech Will Be Slow to Change

 

Sales Cultures Can Allow Microaggressions and Bias to Persist

More than many other fields in tech, sales teams can feel like a club or fraternity — particularly to those who don’t feel like they fit in.

Sales teams are known for celebrating wins together and competing against each other for prizes. There might be team shots, push-up competitions, endless high-five tunnels and team outings to bars or athletic events. While those moments are meant to build camaraderie and help reps blow off steam during a stressful sales cycle, they can also be isolating if the team isn’t diverse and inclusive.

George said she knows of teams where employees might call a Black sales rep “Ghetto” or reduce the rep to a one-dimensional Black character. For instance, they might call her Chaniqua rather than Chantel as a joke, she said. Those jokes are not only racist, but they damage a Black salesperson’s brand and reputation in the office.

“If your teammates are treating you a certain way, and they don’t treat you with respect, a manager is not going to promote you to a management position,” George said. “The manager is setting you up for failure based on how they see you being perceived.”

“You’re not a full person because you’re afraid of being judged and labeled, and that label feels permanent.”

In order to navigate in that environment, George said, many Black women resort to code switching, altering their speech or self-presentation when interacting with white colleagues. But that takes its toll too. One slip-up can alter how a sales leader sees the rep, opening the door for judgement and bias.

“It takes a toll on your body. It’s the stress you hold in your arms. You’re not able to release a sigh of relief,” George said. “You’re not a full person because you’re afraid of being judged and labeled, and that label feels permanent.”

Often, the microaggressions on a sales team are so subtle that they fly over the heads of sales managers who don’t go through unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion training.

“Eventually that person of color will leave, and the manager won’t know why,” George said.

Microaggressions and racism occur on sales calls too.

Jabril Baker stopped using his first name when he made sales calls, because customers would recognize he was Black and hang up on him. Instead, he went by either “J” or his middle name on calls.

He also heard plenty of overt racist comments, like one customer claiming she didn’t want to lower prices too much because it would invite an “urban crowd.” Baker never let the comments get in the way of making a sale, but it took an emotional toll on him.

“It does affect you, but you keep working. People don’t like to hear this, but you go to your Black coworkers who you think are going to be the only ones who can understand it, and see if they’re handling the situation differently,” Baker said. “But there were no Black managers at the company at that point, so there wasn’t anybody I felt in a leadership role that I could speak to.”

 

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How Bias Shapes Feedback

As a sales trainer, Baker tried to go out of his way to support Black sales reps in the company.

He noticed that a lot of the other trainers wouldn’t give the same attention and feedback to help those reps succeed, either because they felt uncomfortable or they felt like the rep just “wasn’t going to get it.”

So Baker took it upon himself to give those reps the same tools he used to get ahead.

Quality of feedback is often a major issue for people of color in sales, Banks said. He rarely heard positive feedback in his individual contributor role at the startup, but managers were quick to give him negative feedback.

Sales teams rely heavily on process and professional development to gain an edge in closing deals. But when sales managers aren’t trained properly, it can create a situation where the only “right way” to sell is to talk and act like the manager.

“They don’t take the time to take a step back and say: ‘How can I be an antiracist here and figure out what would make you successful? How can I help you?’”

As a result, many people of color don’t feel like they’re coached the same, and they often receive negative feedback because of cultural differences.

“It’s largely because those managers don’t get coached or developed,” Banks said. “They don’t take the time to take a step back and say: ‘How can I be an antiracist here and figure out what would make you successful? How can I help you?’”  

Even as he built a sales book of Black-owned businesses, his wins weren’t celebrated. It reiterated the sense that his success didn’t matter, and it created an environment where he felt he’d be fired the first time he didn’t hit his numbers.

Stereotype pressure can also make it difficult for a Black sales rep to vouch for people they know who want to join the company, Banks said. It can make them wonder what will happen if the rep they vouched for doesn’t succeed in that environment.

It creates a fear that they’ll ruin the opportunity for other people of color, Banks said.

More on Diversity in TechCan Data Analytics Make Bias Training More Effective?

 

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Hope for the Future

As Banks reflects on his time in startup sales, he still considers it a positive experience. It led him to another job in tech sales and eventually to become the CEO of re:work. Bias didn’t define his experience, but negative experiences did affect his long-term growth with the company.

Still, Banks is optimistic that the tech industry will fix its diversity problem. Unlike banking or hospitality, it’s still a newer industry that doesn’t have centuries of behavior ingrained in it.

“The tech industry has the ability and access to capital to do something about it. That’s why I feel like here’s an opportunity, a chance for me to move the needle.”

After this summer’s protests against police brutality and discrimination against Black Americans, tech companies responded with vows to improve diversity. While some companies have been more proactive than others, Banks didn’t see banking or insurance companies doing the same thing.

That’s why he’s dedicating his time helping other people like him from Chicago’s South and West sides to find opportunities in tech sales, while also training sales managers to be more inclusive. Racial injustice affects everybody, and now, it’s time for tech companies to do something about it, he said.

“The tech industry has the ability and access to capital to do something about it,” Banks said. “That’s why I feel like here’s an opportunity, a chance for me to move the needle.”

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