What They Mean When They Say You’re ‘Not Social Enough’ at Work

Excelling in the job isn’t enough. Our bosses expect us to be perky and socialize after hours to be a ‘team player.’ Can we just live?

Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

If anyone knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of gaslighting, it is Black women. Oftentimes our complaints are dismissed as being unreasonable and our experiences are treated as fiction. But on Twitter, where Black women are free to vent and express themselves and can easily connect with one another, what are considered niche stories by some are validated as common realities among our collective.

On January 13, I tweeted about being penalized for not engaging in non-work related conversations at a past media job. Inspired by a post stating that “Black women are not allowed to be introverts,” I decided to share my own personal story with hopes that others would relate. The next morning I woke up to responses from thousands of other Black women who came across my thread and shared similar experiences, instantly confirming the sentiment was not only truthful, but a frequent reality.

Tia Burroughs, a 37-year-old independent consultant and licensed social worker living in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, identified with the thread immediately by quote tweeting “relatable.” At her last job, which was in the nonprofit organization management industry, Burroughs found herself having to over-perform and overcompensate in order to make her White co-workers feel comfortable. “It was a lot of pressure to be super happy, super friendly, super smiley, and super accommodating,” she tells ZORA. Burroughs says she was constantly asked by upper management if she was happy at the company. Managers also questioned her dedication to her team.

Despite meeting all of her goals and completing her work, Burroughs never moved up the corporate ladder because her personality was always an issue. “They expect Black women to bend over backwards. I watched my other co-workers, who would sit in their offices all day, do their work, then go home, and wouldn’t be very social, move up in the company. And it was fine for them. But for me, I always had to do extra — be perky, smile, and look excited all the time,” Burroughs says. She blames the negative stereotypes associated with Black women, like angry, mean, and aggressive, as the cause for this unfeasible standard to be hypersocial and accommodating in White spaces, while White people simply get to be themselves.

Nosipho Dlamini, a 25-year-old planning manager in South Africa, had a similar experience which resulted in her moving to a different office location due to the toxic environment brought on by her White co-workers. The logistics company, which was predominantly White, male, and older, valued socializing outside of work at dinners and after-hour drinks. But Dlamini, who likes to keep her personal and professional life separate, and had very little in common with her married co-workers, usually kept to herself. “Even though there wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the way I was working or the quality of work I was producing, the reoccurring thing that my manager had to say about me was that I had an attitude,” Dlamini says of her weekly review meetings. Dlamini says she was courteous, polite, and would engage in professional conversation, but wouldn’t go out of her way to socialize. “For me, I didn’t see the need for that. If it didn’t contribute to the work, then I didn’t see a need for it happening,” she says.

Being penalized for choosing to work instead of sending Bachelor memes and ABBA songs in Slack was unreasonable, and too often Black women have to contend with some form of this challenge in White professional settings.

Six months into my new editor role at a media company, I received the same negative feedback in my annual review. But prior to the evaluation, my boss, at the time, failed to deliver feedback regularly, disallowing me any time to address or course-correct the issue. My boss reported that I was not a team player, feedback that can be damaging enough to hold me back from a promotion or raise. Similar to Dlamini, I was confused by the feedback. The review had no explanation beyond my boss’s statement, so I asked for further detail. The issue came down to me not being active in the team’s non-work-related Slack channel and forgoing team events like drinks and movie nights, none of which were mandatory.

Frustrated with the lack of lucidity in the review, I explained to my boss that choosing to pass on extracurricular activities and casual chatter had no negative impact on my performance nor my attitude. Despite being kind to everyone, greeting the team every morning, and meeting all my deadlines, my introvert behavior was a greater issue.

Thinking back, I’m not an introvert at all. I’m one of the most outgoing people in my social circle, but that’s mostly because I feel comfortable with and identify with my friends. My ex-colleagues and I shared nothing in common, and given that I was the only person of color on the team, we came from completely different backgrounds. Being penalized for choosing to work instead of sending Bachelor memes and ABBA songs in Slack was unreasonable, and too often Black women have to contend with some form of this challenge in White professional settings. The company culture was built around and catered to the majority. Spending my free time hanging out with people who seemed to have no public opinions about racism, the political climate, or anything else of substance was the least bit appealing to someone as plugged in as myself.

Later on, I was let go from the company during a massive layoff. While human resources reps insist the decisions were random, my White co-worker of the same position, who became a full-time employee after I did, and was close friends with my boss and other members of the team, was saved from the cuts. It’s hard not to question whether her fitting in more with the company’s culture played any role in her continued employment and if my battle with ludicrous and unconscious biases ended mine. As Dlamini says, “White people get to be anything that they want to be. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you don’t have to work as hard to be appealing to others. But Black people have to live between certain margins and can’t overstep certain lines.”

A silver lining to my negative experience at my old media job is that I now vet a company’s culture prior to accepting employment. While unconscious biases in White corporate settings that lead to a toxic environment for Black women cannot completely be avoided, my new ability to recognize this hypocrisy has pushed me to address these situations early on, and with support from the advocates who have my back.

We want to hear from you, ZORA fam. Do you have a similar experience? Share your story in the comments. Let us know what happened and how you coped.

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