The issue of gender disparities and the increasing African-American ratios in management consulting firms have rightly become important issues. Yet, the latter is a frighteningly narrow interpretation of racial prejudices.

Let us be honest about this, the color of your skin will have a material impact on where you can work, which clients you can serve and your relative enjoyment in management consulting. Since the 1970’s we have seen a massive rise in Indians taking up senior positions, and eventually leading, the most eminent firms. They, along with most minorities, have faced all kinds of prejudices and there is a reason you will not find an Indian or African leading the Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing offices.

And if you think about this carefully, you are also prejudicial in some way so there is no point in pretending you are perfect and should only engage with such noble segments of the population. They do not exist, and if they do not exist, you need to find a way to turn any person to your side.

Moreover, racial prejudices within countries, like North and South India, and within regions, like Burma and Thailand, play a distinctive role in shaping careers. We routinely counsel clients who face prejudices due to their accents, backgrounds, gender or skin color, usually the latter. I can assure you that if you are not blonde-haired and blue-eyed then you will face some form of racial prejudice as a consultant. That is not to say Europeans do not face their own intra-region prejudices – think of Romanians seeking employment in Germany, Britain and France.

This podcast focuses on what you should do when you face racial prejudices. I am going to focus on my very own experiences and how I dealt with them. The key takeaway is to, first, not attack someone or feel you need to punish them for prejudicial treatment, and, second, to remember you are there to add value despite the client’s personal behavior. If you wanted to pick clients who were not prejudicial in some way than you could do work in no country in the world. And if you think about this carefully, you are also prejudicial in some way so there is no point in pretending you are perfect and should only engage with such noble segments of the population. They do not exist, and if they do not exist, you need to find a way to turn any person to your side. That is a powerful skill to have versus getting on a soap-box and preaching about moral rectitude.

It is crucial to not let the baggage of your past negative experiences blind you from the possibilities of new positive experiences.

Not a single person wins in this situation of blaming and attacking. Many times, what appears to be a deliberate prejudicial slight is actually a person’s default behavior of responding to a situation. They do not mean to offend, but were trained to act in this way. This does not make it better. It just means you need to reprogram the way they handle such situations. This comes down to what I call the competency test, which you need to pass.

This is not to say that I have been very successful at this. There are some clients who have dismissed me from their attention and their are times when I have surely said offensive things inadvertently. The point is that your intent must be sincere and it is better to have a few meaningful client relationships than all average relationships.

The client who shaped my career and really put me on the fast track, at first appeared to be prejudicial, yet became my close friend and a huge champion for my career. By willing to understand why he did what he did, I not only learned so much but became a better person for it. It is crucial to not let the baggage of your past negative experiences blind you from the possibilities of new positive experiences.

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Comments

10 responses to Racial Prejudices in Management Consulting

  1. Hi Raja,

    I joined the consulting industry when I was about just about 22 years old so it was always a bit of a problem for me. I tended to be one of the youngest associates, engagement managers and even principals.

    This is worthy of a follow-up podcast which I do.

    Michael

  2. I also noticed you mentioned the challenges of “who is this teenager?” in relation to the appearance of your age.

    I don’t know how pervasive or significant of a challenge this is, but I have met people on either end of the age spectrum wanting to move into consulting who have had concerns about their age relative to the starting group. I was wondering if you could comment on that, or if it would warrant a separate podcast.

  3. Hi Rav,

    Do not be ashamed. We can only do the best we can, right? We do want to address these crucial topics like racism, prejudices in general because they determine everything. I think the world is changing but certainly not enough. I believe the more partners who discuss these issues, the better it is for everyone.

    Hope all is well.

    Michael

  4. Great take on the effect of color of a person’s skin on the success of consultants. As a dark skinned individual and as a person who grew up in a rural village in India, I can say that color of your skin determines your friends and the future success. All the skin care advertisements on TV attempt to lighten your skin and make your life better. I am ashamed to say that I have actually used some of those skin care creams albeit to the worst results(I am a man). Even my parents encouraged me to use those creams(cringe).
    Thanks for addressing this issue. Excellent podcasts for not just for consultants but for the whole professional world.

  5. Thank you Raja, admittedly this is hard to do.

  6. I’m glad you are willing to tackle such challenging topics. It was very informative.

    Also, as much as this podcast series is about management consulting, I feel like the advice of “do not emotionally escalate” is great life advice in general.

  7. Thanks William. It is unfortunately very prevalent, as an issue.

  8. Outstanding podcast! Thanks for posting. I agree that while this is an issue in consulting (and in business) the key to overcoming the perceived barrier is via compromise, a keen understanding of the situation, and competency.

  9. Thank you Albert.

    I believe it is a massive issue and will impact everyone. We spend a lot of time helping candidates think about how they could position themselves better. I am pleased you found the recommendations useful.

    You will see more such issues addressed shortly.

    Michael

  10. This was a very informative podcast, I am very glad you addressed this issue. It is the elephant in the room and I have done many internet searches about this in professional services only to find very little information (and consultants do not like to talk about it too much either).

    The universality of your technique to overcome ‘discrimination’ (not just racial) is the most valuable part of this podcast.

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