SELEDA Careers...

Ethiopian Professionals on Dealing with Office Politics

It didn't take long for me to realize that ferenjies in the corporate world are easily prone to mistaking Ethiopian chewinet and rega malet for docility. A good majority of the people who report to me are older than I am. However, I did not miss a beat in the sine s'rat I learnt back home of respecting tilik sewotch. Instinctively I would stand up when they walked into my office, I would do some of my own clerical duties, and I never thought I was above offering to grab my colleagues coffee or lunch whenever I was getting myself some. I also took extra care to make sure my work was flawless, and that I left no personal slack to be picked up by my staff.

What is it that we say about "Moygne siyakebrut…"? I got a feeling that my protocol was being mistaken for blatant sycophancy, and that some colleagues had me categorized as the archetypal 'weakling immigrant' in the corporate tree. (Zeraf!)

I hated the prospect of changing my core Ethiopian values in order to deflect these misapprehensions. Even after all these years, my mother's stern "Ante liQ aff!" trumps all lofty titles and corporate hierarchy cards. So, I have learnt throughout the years to inoculate the "alagbab zerTach" yelugnta virus, while preserving Ethiopian decorum. I don't fall apart when I feel 'disrespected', but I make sure that that person never does it again. I don't have to shout, be aloof, a tyrant or enede ferenge menqelqel in order to be heard or respected.

Eventually, my colleagues learnt that chewanet was not a sign of weakness. And I learnt to set boundaries and not go too overboard with the cultural stuff.

Michael, Financier, Chicago

When you're in an environment where every procedure is defined - i.e. no room for interpretation -, where anything new goes through the "NPI" (new process introduction), there's very little space for politics. And when you work with people from 100 or so different nations, there's no "dominant culture" - it's as if you're in Greenwich Village in New York, - "colorful behavioral dynamics" but nothing makes you different. It's a dualistic state - you fit in and then you don't fit in. Still my aleqa thinks I'm "so humble", maybe even too "chewa". Does the unadulterated Ethiopian state of mind and code of behavior work in the standard corporate world? Obviously not…especially if you want to climb the corporate ladder. But at the end of the day, it's what you accomplish that counts and speaks up - you're not talking to your mother.

Metchal, Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) Engineering, Cupertino,CA

Just a couple of months ago, a dear friend of mine, whom I've known since my college years, made a comment that prompted me to stop and think. My friend, who happens to be African-American said, "You know, a lot of people, including myself, at [our last place of employment] didn't know how to deal with you - you often came across as arrogant and conceited. This included many of the black people in the office as well."

This sent me down a long path of memory and recollection of particular events which could possibly lead people to reach that conclusion. I certainly don't consider myself as a conceited person, and often go out of my way to make others, especially "the least of us" in the office comfortable and appreciated.

As I probed for more leads on this revelation, we started to jointly recount instances and occasions that qualified as "conceited." To my utter amazement, innocuous incidents such as my not asking excitedly about someone's vacation were considered a sign of remoteness. Generally, traits that I considered to be those of integrity and self-confidence had been misconstrued by those working around me as something much less honorable. I certainly don't think I'm better than most people, but I take a back seat to no one. But, I am frequently wrong, and openly acknowledge that fact.

I took a moment of reflection to determine the source of the discrepancy in perception. My conclusion is that the primary reason is a cultural difference. As an Ethiopian, my parents raised me in a manner that led me to KNOW that I am an intelligent, self-reliant person. I plan to raise my children in exactly the same fashion because I believe strongly that what you believe manifests itself in shaping your behavior and character.

However, I am also (now more than ever) cognizant of the fact that the dominant culture in the US approaches things differently. As such, awareness of my words and behavior is prudent, and indeed necessary. I can only guess as to what impact such perception gaps had on my career. But you better believe that I consciously look for signs now, and in fact ask my associates directly if this is coming out in my interactions with them, our clients and my bosses.

I'll be damned if the same issue comes to bite me twice.

Merigeta, Banker

While there are certain cultural boundaries I like to keep, make no mistake that I am far from being an advocate of that knack we Ethiopians have for enshrouding ourselves in enigmatic "Well, in my culture…"-isms.

All of that frill was quickly (and mercilessly) purged out of me very early as a first year associate at a very conservative, old money, 'we-bleed- Crimson' law firm on Wall Street. There is one culture around here: the "Billable Hour" culture. No amount of wrapping myself in the flag can negate that. This is not to say I went out of my way to avoid 'being' Ethiopian. I just never made it an issue at work.

Dodging office politics aside, I do believe that the visceral Ethiopian-ness in me is channeled towards what I believe are more effective and productive ways. (Minim bihon ye Ab'uware lij negn!) I am active in the firm's mentoring program, and I have quietly recruited young Ethiopian law students to intern with partners and managing partners. Other than that, there's no room on the "Partner-in-10 years" track to be radically different. I catch up on the cultural stuff with my friends when we do the CHat fersho thing on weekends.

Meseret, Attorney, New York City

Office Politics Survival guide:

If you were raised back home, chances are you learned how to listen (or at least give the impression that you are listening). Retain that skill. You will learn a lot and avoid the bigger gaffes if you listen to what people say (and don't say).

Speak up at all meetings, but ONLY if you have something insightful or important to say. Do the homework and HAVE something to say for as many meetings as possible.

Speak early so as not to be meQedem'ed, speak clearly, speak concisely.

Don't pass on weré.

Keep your wits about you when the brown stuff starts flying around (ducking is not enough, better learn to bob and weave).

At the end of the day, it's not your father's house. Have an exit strategy for every job you're in (i.e. know where you would go if it ended tomorrow, and keep your contacts fresh).

Document all issues where it can be your word against someone else's .(Keep emails, letters, memos, hand-written notes, etc. whenever you are in an uncomfortable or controversial situation.)

Make sure that at least one other person besides your direct supervisor sees any significant work you're doing -- it's good for networking, and it will be less tempting for someone to take credit for your work.

Smile at everyone, greet everyone from the zebegna all the way up.

And remember the cardinal rule of all office politics, and successes: the most important person who has to like you is NOT the boss, but the boss's secretary.

MM in Washington, DC

I have yet to fully grasp the art of office politics in the corporate world. As an Ethiopian, I feel equally alienated from all pre-assigned office allegiances, often pledged to during the first few weeks at a new job. My African American colleagues think that I am not 'black' enough, Caucasians vacillate between thinking I am either 'a different kind of black', or entirely too radical, and yet others just look at me, bite their lips and mutter something equivalent to "Weyney! Ye sew neger eko!"

I have come to the conclusion that as Ethiopians we certainly do have advantages regarding perception in Corporate America… why pussyfoot around with PC-isms? We have equal disdain for both sides of the great color divide, which makes it easy to remain relatively neutral. Add to that, our culture of reserved-ness, which saves us from needing to latch on quickly to a clique because of insecurities or to avoid standing out, and we come out on the pretty side of the bloody battleground that is office politics.

I have learnt to carefully assess the office milieu before I fall into the "be-anday arbosh, be-anday Telat" trap prevalent especially in my industry. Ultimately, I want to be seen as an individual who is capable, determined and hard working. It takes deft avoiding of various cultural, color, and gender landmines littered along the way. And despite the distinct 'mehal sefari'-ness twist to it, I've decided I like being the Switzerland of Corporate-dom… except the Swiss don't blast Hanna Shenkute from their PCs, and don't give equal opportunity eskista lessons.

Blein, Public Relations, Atlanta.

There was a farewell luncheon being given for a co-worker leaving for bigger and better things. He was one of a few colleagues I did not mind working with, so I decided to attend. It was the first time in years I had gone to a large social gathering with my fellow inmates.

The food was taking an excruciatingly long time to arrive, so we started drinking beer and telling senseless stories to pass time.

This was when Ed decided to open his mouth... "Went to a new doctor for a physical last week," he started. "A young black guy…"

"Now Ed," came a warning from across the table. Ed looked up, noticed me a few chairs down and stammered, "Let me finish, I wasn't about to say anything bad". Then good ol' Ed went on to tell a very bland and pointless story, clearly not the tale he would have spun if I were not sitting there.

The funny thing is, I really wouldn't have cared what story he told. Ed's opinion of "black doctors" is not going to keep me up at night. I don't want people standing in my way (or anyone else's) because of color, and I'll fight that with all the vigor I can muster, but that does not mean they have to like me or people of my color. "Just get out of our way" is my motto. So Ed could have told the story he wanted to tell, and others who found it funny could have laughed, it would not have caused me to think any less of them than I already do.

A.B.D., Researcher, Rockville.

How do I deal with office politics? I don't. I don't think. No matter what the in-fighting, all personal animosities dissipate on the trauma floor as we all try to save a 10-year-old who's body has been riddled with bullets from another drive-by shooting. At that moment, we are not Ethiopian or Bulgarian or American… we are all physicians. I like the cohesion and temporary egalitarianism my profession offers. No matter who pissed you off that morning, they might be the one assisting you close an open wound that afternoon. So, the tradition of qim and beqel has no place in medicine.

When you share losing a patient, or when you've closely avoided hundreds of flatlines with people whom you would never, under other circumstances, ever associate with, you learn to keep the personal separate from the professional. Of course, as more and more hospitals are starting to resemble corporate America, the work environment for physicians is also changing… The hysterical competition for scarce research funds borders on the obscene. But my bottom line is medicine. As such, I don't let the trivial stuff interfere with my first love.

Abraham, Physician, Atlanta

Does "being an Ethiopian in the corporate world and dealing with office politics" mean that I once openly mocked a proposed "Bring Your Doggie to Work Day"? (I am not kidding you, it really happened.) Of course my insolence didn't endear me to some of the higher ups, who had already booked Muffy for an all-day session at the Pet Salon.

Hey, I don't care how many times you have bungie-jumped; how often you've said: "We are taking the boat out this weekend"; whether you've wanted to join the Southampton Land Trust to Preserve Peconic Bay; if you've sung at Glee Club recitals; if you've demonstrated in support of PeTA… I don't even care how many shortcuts you know to Sag Harbor, or if you can recite the damn menu from Inn at Little Washington… But, if ALL the wonay and hamot fibers in your body do not quake at the mere thought of "Doggie Day" at work, you might as well give up all your Ethiopian-ness and become… one those weeine Italian School students in Addis Ababa.

I know the spiel about assimilation. I've benefited from it. But what indelibly makes me an Ethiopian dealing with office politics is CLEARLY knowing when to draw the line… and that's at stepping over a damn poodle while I am on deadline.

Sofanit, Publishing, Hanover