[Toxic and] Hostile Workplace Environment

When I was hired to join the World Bank Group, I was in my happy Caribbean bubble. I greeted everyone – even in elevators – made friendly conversation, respected the variety of peoples around me and treated everyone with respect and trust. I was starstruck…at first.

As any other newbie happy to achieve success by being hired to a place you thought was a way to fulfill your purpose, I didn’t really know much. I observed, listened and soaked in things I could not fully understand about my reception into the workplace. I didn’t know about diversity targets or affirmative action. I actually believed that my competitive hire was due solely to meritocracy. Before I even joined the Vice Presidency, my colleagues assumed otherwise. This tension and totality of the rejection remained veiled to me for some time.

I had the experience, the qualifications (my law degree and very expensive LLM – Master in Laws – from a top tier University in DC) saw a job advertisement, I applied, interviewed, told I was selected for the job, negotiated pay and accepted an offer.

Neither “Lean In” nor “the Confidence Code” prepared me for what I was about to suffer through. What I should have been reading instead was “Beating the Workplace Bully” and listening to Verna Myers TED talks on inclusion: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance“. I realized that I would never gain the respect from my colleagues who denied me of human dignity. It was never about my will to lead, my ability to work or my demonstrated intellect. My degrees were questioned, my capabilities discounted and my ambition disapprovingly criticized. No one ever put the music somewhere I could hear, much less dance to it

Their hostility towards people of color was so pervasive. We were told that we should be grateful that we were even chosen in the first place. We were after all, rescued from poverty. My colleagues did not openly resist. I could not help but to. The retaliation was swift. I was ignored when it came to work, passed over for opportunities and insulted in meetings. I was told I should never have been hired, I wasn’t meant to be there and I was not wanted. The hatred of me was real and it was known and it was shared. And it was permitted. Management did nothing. Sometimes I read over the reports I filed with the internal justice system, just to remind myself that I did not make this up. I wasn’t speculating, I wasn’t misunderstanding.

It all has such a profound effect on me and changed how I viewed myself and did my job.

Confusingly, questions were viewed as complaints and my observations as criticisms. The air was laden by the toxicity. Like a match in an ammunitions shop, I was unknowingly challenging a racially charged system by simply being who I am. I didn’t know that when someone called me “articulate” that it was offensive when I didn’t accept this as a compliment. I had no clue about the racial connotations of half of my experiences. I was never schooled to understand what anyone could methodologically bully me because of unchangeable characteristics.

I wish I could get back what they stole from me.

Honestly, I grieve for my former self. I wish I never invested so much to be a part of the international development space. I wish I never worked at the World Bank. I wish I never gave up my Caribbean innocence that colour means nothing more than variety of shades. But most of all, I wish that I could do an interview without crying when they ask about my experience there. I wish I could walk into an office and know that I belonged and that I’m welcomed…instead of losing my breath and being crippled by just the thought of returning there.

More than anything, I wish I knew when my sense of safety, confidence and ability would come back. Even though I’m feeling helpless and hopeless, I’m trying to believe they will, because all the books on my new reading lists say so.

One day I’ll be OK. Just not today.


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