Black Women at Work: Knowing Your Rights, Using Your Voice
By Veronica Wells-Puoane of NoSugarNoCreamMag.com
In my decade-long tenure at MadameNoire, I’ve witnessed more than a few regime changes. Some people left of their own volition while others were tossed from the door kicking and screaming like Jazzy Jeff.
For the most part, I didn’t concern myself with it. Those problems and that drama was above my pay grade. And more importantly, it never really affected my day-to-day work…until it did.
In 2012, I had been with the company for two years. Already in that short time, I’d seen my fair share of turn over. And that spring, in an attempt to replace someone who’d just walked out of the revolving door, the company hired a woman I’ll call Yvette.
For those who don’t know, MadameNoire is and has always been a Black owned company–even under its previous owner–and all of the women who have served as editors for the site, have been Black women.
So with that foundation, any woman who stepped into any position at MadameNoire had my respect just as a fellow sister.
But what I would learn that Spring, just two years out of college, was that not all Black women extend that courtesy to one another.
Not all Black women extend that courtesy to one another.
In the days before Yvette came to work at the office, we heard a bit about her background. She’d worked for a print outlet. And though the current leadership had some concerns about her lack of experience in digital media, they felt that she would be a good fit for the team.
The idea was that she would learn the ropes as an associate editor, the position I occupied at the time, and then eventually take over as Deputy Editor for the site.
I think it’s appropriate to state that I’ve never had much desire to progress past my current position at MadameNoire. What I know and have always known about myself is that I like to write and generally be left alone. And while promotion does include more money, the problems aren’t far behind. You have to answer to more people and creativity takes a backseat to the administrative and business dealings that need to happen in order to keep the brand afloat.
That’s not for me. And I’m proud to say I had that type of awareness about myself in my twenties.
The positions above mine require increased surveillance, communication skills, conflict management, and organization. And believe you me, the only type of organization to which I’m consistently willing commit, is organizing the thoughts in my head so they can be translated into the written word.
I say all that to say that I was, in no way, shape or form, interested in Yvette’s position or somehow bitter about the fact that she would one day be my boss.
There are two types of new hires. The people who come in, sit back and observe what the hell is going on, quietly noting where they can implement changes for the betterment. And then there are those people who come in dictating and demanding before they learn the lay of the land.
Sadly, for everyone involved, Yvette was the latter.
I was, in no way, shape or form, interested in Yvette’s position
At first, I didn’t think much of it. Sis was new. She didn’t have digital experience and I could see that she was trying to make an impression. With the way media was changing in 2012, with print publications struggling to stay afloat, I could see why she needed to prove herself invaluable.
Unfortunately, instead of attempting to prove herself in the work she did, she sought to exert power she had yet to earn…against me. But it’s hard to do that when you have yet to learn your job.
And the truth of the matter is there were things she just didn’t know. I understood that too. It’s a learning curve. And I thought since I had been there a couple of years, I could help her. But, I would later discover, she took my help as an indication of her inadequacies. It was not welcome.
She’d get huffy when I’d attempt to politely correct her mistakes and explain that we generally do things this way as opposed to another. I could see that she was irritated but the mistakes she made were not little ones. They would either disrupt our workflow, reflect poorly on the brand if they were published or didn’t fit in the nature of our work. So they had to be addressed.
And while I could sympathize with her not wanting her ignorance exposed, what I didn’t want was for someone new to come in and tarnish the brand I’d worked for the past two years to build.
I assumed that Yvette would spend a couple of months feeling salty as she learned the ropes, eventually get the hang of it and chill out.
I was wrong.
She took my help as an indication of her inadequacies.
Instead of devoting her time to figuring out how we did things, she set her sights on punishing me.
There were cutting glances, curt answers and outright challenges that I can no longer remember, eight years later.
What I do recall is that it all came to a head when Yvette decided to reject the pitches one of my freelancers submitted, without consulting the rest of the team.
After reading the pitches, Yvette wrote to myself and the other two editors:
“Did anyone respond to Adrienne?
If not, I’ll contact her and suggest she submit other ideas. Passing on these.”
I typically received Adrienne’s pitches and edited her copy. Her ideas were often a little abstract in the pitch process but they came together once submitted. And they performed well for the site. Not to mention, I liked that she didn’t think like your average Black girl. Black women need to be represented in all of our facets.
I read over Adrienne’s pitches. Yvette was right, most of them wouldn’t work but a couple of them did. Typically, our practice was to discuss the ideas with each other before any of us made a decision to veto all of them.
Perhaps knowing that Yvette hated to be challenged, I took a beat. And both me and Yvette’s boss, responded first to the thread.
I think you’re working with her, right? Do you want to respond?
It was only right. If all of Adrienne’s ideas were going to be rejected, she should hear it from me and not someone she’d never met and didn’t know.
I replied to the thread.
I’ve been working with Adrienne thus far. If we’re all in agreement that we want to pass on these I can tell her to submit other ideas. I personally like the ‘Black Weakness’ idea.
Let me know what you all think.
Chile, that was it.
Yvette didn’t say anything further on the email thread. But shortly after that, I received an invitation for us to get coffee.
I thought perhaps Yvette had turned over a new leaf and was inviting me to coffee to pick my brain, learn more about the processes here, establish some type of camaraderie with one of the women she would be managing.
Again, I was wrong.
We walked to Starbucks in virtual silence. When we sat down she immediately let me know the true intention of our visit.
“I just want to talk to you about the disrespect I’ve been receiving from you since I got here.”
I was genuinely confused.
“What do you mean by disrespect?”
“You undermining my authority in meetings and email.”
I told her that I was just explaining how we had done things in the past. I told her I didn’t mean any disrespect. But I knew as a new employee, she had a lot to learn. I may have asked her how she expected to do that if people allowed her to keep doing things the wrong way.
She deaded the conversation with this: “All I know is, I’m going to be your boss. And when I’m the boss, when I see disrespect, I get rid of it.”
Any thoughts I had about Yvette eventually learning to play nice went out the window. She’d just effectively threatened my job. Perhaps I should have been intimidated or worried. But the plan was for her to become my boss. She was not that yet. So this declaration about her management style not only struck me as premature but also utterly ridiculous.
Our little coffee date ended shortly after that.
“When I see disrespect, I get rid of it.”
We walked back to the office in silence.
If I had any misconceptions about how conniving Yvette could be, they were squashed just before we entered the door to our open work space, rejoining our coworkers. As her hand was on the knob, she asked me a question. I answered her just as she turned it. And as soon as the words left my mouth, she burst into a fit of exaggerated laughter.
To everyone in the room, it seemed that we’d had a gay ole time and were the best of buddies.
I spent the next few hours at my computer, sitting right next to Yvette in our one-room open office plan. Physically there, pantomiming the motions of day to day work. Mentally, I was worlds away wondering how I was going to play this.
At Starbucks, I thought Yvette’s threat of termination was an ego-driven overreaction. But in the hours I spent at my desk, waiting to go home, I realized her words probably violated some type of work protocol as well.
The rest of the day was a blur. My coworkers sensed that perhaps something was off with me but I held it all in until I got home and sat down at my personal computer, having decided on a course of action.
I emailed my boss as well as the owner of the company and told them about Yvette’s little stunt.
Within minutes my suspicions of the off-site coffee date being inappropriate were confirmed. HR had been cc’ed on the conversation. My boss apologized for the fact that I had to endure that. And the owner of the company asked to see any correspondence reflecting the “disrespect” I had shown Yvette.
It felt great to know that my intuition about our meeting was correct. Naturally, no one told me what would happen next. But at least they knew what type of boss Yvette would be to her employees one day.
I was worlds away wondering how I was going to play this.
Two days later, the owner of the company called Yvette and my boss into his office. His office was enclosed in glass. So while I couldn’t hear what the conversation was about, I could tell from my boss’ disappointed face and Yvette’s erect and prideful posture that it was a tense one.
Open floor plan spaces really do rob people of their dignity. After the meeting, my boss left the glass office and sat across from me. I attempted to search her face for answers but she kept her eyes averted. Yvette followed her out of the room and returned to her computer right next to mine. It was my turn to avert my eyes now. Through my periphery I could see her placing a few things in her purse.
I assumed she was going to lunch after she had been reprimanded during the meeting.
Quietly, Yvette made her way over to the one friend she’d made in our office. She was attempting to speak in hushed tones but I heard her say, ‘Well, today’s my last day…’
If Yvette wanted to keep the news on the low, her friend ended all of that by exclaiming “What?!” For the whole room to hear.
My eyebrows shot up. My stomach leapt in anticipation and then immediately, I felt tension I didn’t even know I was carrying leave my body.
The previous owners of MadameNoire made it clear in more ways than one that they were never really invested in the well-being of their employees. So I never thought my emails would end in Yvette being fired. And in reality, they didn’t fire her because of my feelings. Yvette taking employees off-site and then threatening to fire them was a liability for the whole company. But it was more than even that.
Apparently, the mistakes I’d witnessed and attempted to correct, weren’t the only ones she was making.
And while the company might have been willing to allow her to adjust to the learning curve, they couldn’t have her exposing them up to lawsuits and [additional] accusations of a toxic work environment.
She had to go.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t gloat about Yvette’s firing privately to family and friends. There was and still is deep satisfaction in me advocating for myself and protecting my source of income. Yet, there is also disappointment in the fact that throughout my entire career, the biggest threat to my job security came in the form of another Black woman.
In preparation for this article, I googled Yvette to see what she’s been up to in the past eight years. She’s done some freelance work in the digital space. I also saw that she was a professor for some time.
My only hope is that in addition to teaching, she’s taken the time to learn some things as well.
Veronica Wells-Puoane is the creator of the website NoSugarNoCreamMag. She is the author of “Bettah Days” and You’ll Be All Write, a question and answer journal for Black women. She is also the culture editor at MadameNoire.com.
Find more of her articles by Veronica on Curlynikki.com, HERE!
Have you had similar experiences at work? Let us know how it went!