5 Tips for Students of Color Entering the Workforce

The future workforce will be increasingly diverse. Learn how students of color can prepare to enter the workforce — and handle challenges once there.
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  • The future workforce is projected to be more diverse and older than the current one.
  • People of color face unique challenges at work, including potential discrimination.
  • If you believe you're experiencing discrimination, it's important to document everything.
  • Researching companies' DEI commitments can help students prepare for future jobs.

With some statistics indicating that more than a third of college graduates are classified as non-white, it's clear that a significant number of students of color are finishing school and preparing to enter the workforce.

This begs the question: Are there any unique and specific challenges that people of color (POC) will face as they accept new jobs? And if so, how can people of color prepare for the workforce while still in school?

We spoke with Beatriz Garcia and Marisa Urrutia Gedney, co-founders of Your Truth at Work, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consulting and coaching firm, to get their expert advice. Read on to learn more about challenges faced by people of color, how to handle discrimination at work, and how students of color can prepare for their future jobs.

What the Future Workforce Looks Like

According to the American Association of University Women, in 2020, the U.S. under-18 demographic became a "majority minority." This means that the number of people who were once considered "minorities" are now actually in the majority. As people in this demographic grow up, become adults, and pursue career paths, the workforce will change accordingly.

In other words: The future workforce will become increasingly diverse as the years go on.

Note: Diversity doesn't just refer to race and ethnicity. For example, Deloitte reports that the future workforce will also be older than the workforces of decades past. Creating an inclusive workforce means respecting all aspects of a person's identity, including their sexual orientation, gender, age, and more.

Challenges Faced by People of Color in the Workplace

In the wake of the 2020 racial justice uprising, many companies responded by pushing out public statements affirming they would become more mindful of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many also rolled out lofty initiatives to create inclusive work environments — yet real change takes much more than just declarative statements.

"Things are progressing slowly and, in some cases, are worse than before. Workplaces can easily disguise harmful practices through performative DEI initiatives. Policies and transparency make it difficult to question the true impact of DEI initiatives affecting marginalized staff."

— Beatriz Garcia and Marisa Urrutia Gedney

Quotation mark

A disconnect between what POC employees expect and deserve (and the values companies publicly espouse) and the reality of working at the company can lead to instances of gaslighting: when employees' experiences don't align with what they're told is happening and, furthermore, receive no support from their companies and their human resources (HR) departments.

Microaggressions, which are subtle instances of discrimination, or more obvious discriminatory situations may occur — and POC staff may not know how to handle it or who to turn to for support.

Garcia and Gedney say it may go so far that POC team members are told — either explicitly or implicitly — a message along the lines of: "What more do you want?" "We've made changes, and we're doing our best." "You should be happy with this."

How to Handle Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination can take many forms.

Again, it may be subtle. For example, if you don't have clarity on what it would take to be promoted or receive a raise — or the goalposts keep moving — that might be discriminatory. Discrimination may also be more blatant, as is the case with salary inequities and different performance and conduct expectations between men and women and for Black and brown people.

If you are experiencing discrimination, Garcia and Gedney recommend you process it outside of the workplace with people you feel safe with.

"After processing and identifying what discrimination you faced, get clear on the outcome you are seeking," they suggest. "That will inform the approach you will take.

"Because the primary goal for the organization is to reduce its liability, no matter what outcome you decide, document everything. We mean everything."

Garcia and Gedney recommend that you:

  • Send a follow-up email summarizing the meeting
  • Ask for clarification of what was said
  • Create a paper trail
  • Become familiar with the HR department and the organization's process of how discrimination is managed
  • Read through the policies and become familiar with them

"Also, seek external HR support from your network. You may know someone who can help," they said.

Tips to Prepare for and Enter the Workforce

Here are five things you can do as you prepare for the workplace — and once you are there:

  • 1

    Research different companies and investigate their commitment to DEI initiatives. Do they have metrics and numbers to back up these initiatives? Are there any contacts in your network you can reach out to and ask about their experience working at the company? You can also use sites like Glassdoor to read reviews about employees' experiences.

  • 2

    Garcia and Gedney recommend acknowledging that white dominant culture and norms will likely be upheld in the workplace. Knowing this ahead of time will help you adjust your mindset. However, this doesn't mean you have to accept poor treatment. You will need to be ready to advocate for your growth and advancement.

  • 3

    Talk to someone you trust if you notice red flags at your company. Perhaps that's someone who works in your field and has more tenure than you. Maybe it's a colleague you can openly confide in. "It's OK to get validation for any harm you're experiencing," Garcia and Gedney point out. "This can help you understand your situation and know that you're not the problem."

  • 4

    Seek out a community that can support you. Affinity groups abound, and that's a good thing. Sharing space with people who understand or have had your same or similar lived experiences can be a breath of fresh air and help you grow personally and professionally.

  • 5

    If you don't see things changing, it may be time to leave the company and look for a new position.

The Future Workforce Looks Like You

If you're a student of color preparing to enter the workforce, you're not alone —in fact, future projections indicate you may soon be in the majority.

However, many workplaces are still behind the times, and you may face instances of discrimination. If you do, remember to rely on your support network, advocate for yourself, and document your experience to protect yourself.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Beatriz Garcia and Marisa Urrutia Gedney

Beatriz Garcia and Marisa Urrutia Gedney

Beatriz Garcia is transformational coach, justice, and liberation advocate. She has expertise in building systemic change and establishing equitable and inclusive spaces for organizations that work with underrepresented and underserved communities and is an expert in guiding young professionals to meet their potential over the past 15 years. Her mission is to create a world in which everyone is free to be their most authentic self.

Named one of Forbes magazine's top 30 under 30 in Education, 2012, Marisa Urrutia Gedney is a transformative leader with 15 successful years of facilitating healing, justice, and growth as a compassionate manager and equity advocate. As a Sahumadora in Danza Azteca, she practices fire as her spirit technology and transmutes transgenerational trauma in her poetry. She was invited by former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera to read at the L.A. Library series, ALOUD, and has received a writers in residence at Hedgebrook.