Work and Money
'Sally' in HR with Actress Kelechi Okafor
Minda Harts, author of The Memo and the founder of The Memo LLC — a career-development company for women of color — is the creator and host of the Secure the Seat podcast, the podcast for today’s professional women of color. In this episode, Minda sits down with actress and director Kelechi Okafor — and one of her “friends” from the HR department. The following is an abridged transcript of their discussion.
Minda Harts: Hi, my name is Minda Harts, and I'm your host of Secure the Seat, your weekly podcast that helps women of color secure their seat at the table. It's not enough just to get in the room, secure your seat and not look back — what are you doing with your seat? Are you bringing other women of color along with you? If you're not, you got some work to do. If you already have a lot of women of color in the room, that's awesome. Who else is missing? Bring them along. How do we create a lasting impact? That's bringing others along with us. You can lift while you climb, and I know a lot of people say that and it's kind of … can be a little cliché, but I truly believe that we get the most impact, we move the needle further when we're not alone, when we don't have to be the only one. You might be the first one, but you don't have to be the only one.
So, this week's episode I'm really excited about, and I'm not going to take too much time in the opener, but you're going to enjoy today's episode. You may even laugh out loud — I don't want to give you too much. So let's get into it.
Kelechi, welcome to Secure the Seat. How are you?
Kelechi Okafor: I'm fine, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Minda: I'm so excited to have you. I am a stan of yours online. So the fact that you said okay to this, I am so excited.
Kelechi: Oh, definitely.
Minda: But before we introduce “HR Sally,” tell us a little bit more about your background and why you created her.
Kelechi: Well, I'm an actor, director, and podcaster, and I have my own dance fitness studio. And basically, I have all of those things because I just always knew that I didn't want to work in the traditional kind of office environment for my whole life. And every time that I had worked in those sorts of environments, I just found them really, really stifling and frustrating because so much was happening. So as an actor, I was really noticing the things that weren't said. So there was lots of conversation happening, but the real conversation was happening underneath. And the real conversation happening underneath was really rather violent. And I just thought to myself, "One day I want to use all of these characters that I encounter or these types of behaviors that I encounter, and put them into a sketch of some sort."
"So there was lots of conversation happening, but the real conversation was happening underneath. And the real conversation happening underneath was really rather violent."
So the kind of person I am, usually with my friends or family, I'm always impersonating people and making jokes of situations that seem, to me, they seem rather absurd, but they are in actuality just everyday events that we've just taken for granted. We just think, "Oh, that's just the way it’s meant to be," but it's really absurd when you sit down and think about it. So that's how Sally in HR really came about, because I started to think to myself, all of the HR people I've kind of encountered, all the people I've encountered in the corporate world, they have elements of Sally in that they're so ignorant and so happy in their ignorance, yet the ignorance isn't helping the people around them, whether they be people of color or just people who were generally of it. So I just thought it would be a good way to have that conversation.
Minda: Yeah. I'm glad that you did because many of us working in these environments that happen to be of color. This is what we deal with every day, the Sallies of the world, right? And so, like you said, it seems absurd, but this is every day for many of us, and so I'm glad that you brought it to light. And that leads me to my next question: There was a Harvard Business Review article a couple years ago titled, "Why We Love to Hate HR.” Why do you think HR gets a bad rap?
Kelechi: I think HR gets a bad rap because they are essentially the gatekeepers. When we talk about, "Oh, there's a lack of diversity in these companies," they are the people that could essentially make a change. They can make that change regardless of how draconian or archaic the views of the CEO might be, and all of these other people that we see in the higher echelons of business. The HR people still have a chance to justify why they're bringing in new people, different people, yet they don't. They stick to the status quo. They bring in the same people all of the time. And yet, they'll put on their sites, their websites, "Oh, we care about diversity. We care about inclusion," yet all of the smiling faces are white and predominantly male. It's worrying. And that's the reason why, because they are kind of responsible for the well-being of the staff in terms of bringing them in and making sure the environment is one that's conducive for them working there. Yet, they fall so short of it constantly. After your interview, you don't really interact with them unless there's a complaint, and you don't want that.
Minda: Yeah, you preach it right there because I teach a course at NYU and our students are always complaining about how bad HR is. And I'm always, "Listen, it's not HR per se, it's the people," right?
Kelechi: It is. Definitely, it's the people who create the culture. People create culture. So, HR has the reputation that it has because the people who end up in these roles are so happy to just have people who look like themselves come through. I remember going for an interview — so I used to temp a lot as an admin assistant, like an administrator's assistant, or as a receptionist, just as a way to make sure that I was always available for auditions and things like that. And I remember going to one interview, and it was for like a very menial role. I'd only be there maybe two days in the week, 9 til 3, just very easygoing, really, really highly regarded organization. So, I get there and I'm on time, but the person before me is running at this point 45 minutes late, a white woman running 45 minutes late for her interview, so they insist on waiting for her to arrive because she keeps calling to say she's on her way, so they insist on waiting for her to arrive to do her interview, even though mine is now the one that's up next.
So she goes in, does her things, she comes in looking rather disheveled. She goes in, has her interview, she leaves. And then I go in for my interview and they're, "Okay, tell us about yourself." And it's two older white women and said, "Tell us about yourself." I said, "Oh, well, I run, I am a personal trainer on the side as well, I act, I direct. And I just believe in living my life to the fullest, and I really think that I'd enjoy this job role because I'm super efficient, super fit, I can get things done and get them done in a timely manner." And so they both looked at each other and they went, "Well, you just seem a bit too exciting for this role. It's just, the role's just really boring. Honestly, the role is so boring. We wouldn't want to bore you being here. Honestly." I said it wouldn't be boring, that's why I put myself forward for it, I knew that I'd enjoy it. And it just speaks to the other part of me that likes tranquility when I'm not out and about doing my other bits.
"Yeah, but no, we just think you'd really, really find it boring." So in the end, I spoke with my agent, the recruitment agent, and he ended up telling me that the girl who was 45 minutes late, came in looking a mess, was the one who got the role because they just thought that she would be better suited to their environment. And then two weeks later, I think she called in, said she wasn't coming back, so they asked if I would consider coming back. And obviously I didn't go in, but I just thought that that was really an interesting dynamic, even in that moment. You're so much better suited for this. You've done everything by the book, yet they find something really random. But again, it's because culture and people create culture.
Minda: Absolutely. I wish I could say I'm surprised by that story, but I know these things happen. As crazy as it is, and I'm sure some of our listeners are, "Oh, yeah, girl. I know, I know." So that's hilarious. But I know that we have Sally in HR, who's standing by, and I'm sure she has some things to say…
Kelechi: Yeah, we should get Sally on.
Minda: … to all of this. And so Sally, welcome to Secure the Seat.
“Sally”: Hiya, hiya. Lovely to be here, so nice to speak with you. I saw your name when we were arranging this meeting and I thought, "Oh, that's such a pretty name, really ethnic." So thank you. Thanks for having me.
Minda: I appreciate that, Sally. It's funny, I've heard some things about you. I heard that there was an incident at work with a woman of color, that you didn't recognize her because of her new hairstyle. Would you call that a micro-aggression, Sally?
"(Kelechi as 'Sally'): It's so difficult when certain people, they just change their hairstyles all the time and it's so hard to recognize them."
“Sally”: Well, to be honest, I didn't mean anything by it. And it wasn't just me, because Kathy had the same problem with her as well, right? It's so difficult when certain people, they just change their hairstyles all the time and it's so hard to recognize them. One day she's got bootylicious hair like Beyoncé, next day she's got locks like Bob Marley, okay? There's probably only two people in the building that are like her color, if you get what I mean, but it still just makes it so difficult. And, yeah, like I said, I didn't mean anything by it, nothing mean, nothing nasty, just didn't recognize her.
Minda: Okay, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but does she have a different face or is she doing a different role? I mean, like you said, there aren't too many of women that look like her in the building. So why is that so hard to recognize her?
“Sally”: I just feel like sometimes you look at people and you can only see what you can see, right? So I look at her, and oh, she's a beautiful girl. She's beautiful. Really beautiful. Really lovely hair. I asked her if I could touch it one time and that didn't go down too well. But it's just really difficult I guess, because I don't hang around people who are of that color a lot, but I am trying to make this whole environment as friendly and as diverse as possible. It just is a challenge when you don't see people like that often, so it's easy to mix them up honestly.
Minda: Hmmm. That's interesting. Well, you are the head of HR and I'm curious to know what diversity initiatives you've implemented to help advance women of color.
“Sally”: I love this question because I just see myself as spearheading innovation, and that's why I've got this role. I mean, to be fair, my uncle was one of the guys who started the company, but I really have to work hard and really build myself up into this role. But I've been doing so much, so when I see these coming through — maybe your people, you to call them —résumés and that. When I see these things come through, these documents, sometimes if the name is a bit too difficult, I probably won't get them in for an interview. Not to be mean, not to be nasty, not because I mean anything by it, but I just have to think of the comfort of the other employees, because they're going to struggle. They're going to struggle with the names and then everyone's feeling awkward and everyone's feeling uncomfortable. But if the name isn't too bad, definitely. Definitely, I want them to come through. I want these women of color, as she put it, to come through.
Me, personally, I don't see color, I just see talent. And that's what I think, when it comes to innovation and it comes to all of these things, it's about talent. I've got a few people who are of a different color, I've got different heights, I've got different weights, I think I'm getting a disabled woman in next week. I don't know how we're going to do it because we've got lots of stairs, but I'll figure it out. So yeah, and I've got a couple of Muslim women. So, I'm really doing a lot out here, more than my peers I have to say.
Minda: So I guess it's safe to say you're an ally, aren't you, Sally?
“Sally”: Well, I wouldn't go around calling myself that off my own back, but as you've said it, I don't see how I'm not. I'm out here just trying to make the world better. Like the other day I had on a hijab — is that what you call it? Hijab. I had that on because I was going to one of those diversity and inclusion seminars and I would just really want to understand what it's like to be a Muslim. And I know I could easily ask them, but I just imagine that their mouths are tired from all of that praying, so I'd rather just use my initiative and get on with it, wear the hijab and all of that and figure it out myself. So I mean, if that's not an ally, but I don't know what is.
Minda: Wow. Well, I don't even know what to say, Sally. There's so many …
“Sally”: Oh, well, that's so lovely. That's so lovely when people are speechless. Oh, thank you, love.
Minda: Well, it's been a pleasure having you on. Unfortunately, it's time for you to go, but thank you for being a guest.
“Sally”: No problem, thank you, love.
Minda: It's crazy. It's just, this is normal. This is normal. And I have to ask you, I mean, okay, so we heard from Sally and yeah, we'll definitely make sure that everybody has your contact information in terms of your website and …
Kelechi: Oh, thank you.
Minda: … find more. But for those HR folks listening, and I know that I have a lot who listen to the show, and they might be feeling some kind of way or some of them were probably, "Yeah, that's true."
Minda: What's one thing you would want them to consider as they're optimizing their talent and going forward, and some of them being HR Sallys in their own, right?
Kelechi: Yeah. For me, I definitely think the thing that we need to focus on and the reason, like I said, for creating Sally, is that your comfort as a person in HR, especially if you are not of color, you have to put your comfort secondary to everything. Because actually that comfort is racialized, is gendered, because of a white supremacist, patriarchal kind of structure that we exist within. So what you believe to be comfort is just a maintenance of the status quo, and that doesn't serve anybody. And I have so many conversations, the way that Sally speaks, to us it's, "What the hell are you saying? Can you not see how that's offensive?" But genuinely, not because for so long people of color have made sure that people like Sally feel comfortable because they need to get hired, they need to get paid, so therefore that behavior is reinforced. So, if you know that the people who want to be hired aren't going to correct, you need to correct yourself.
Minda: Yeah, that's real. And I think that you also hit on something else, is for so long that many of us feel like we don't have any agency to speak up. And maybe now the tides have changed to where we do let Sallys of the world know that that's not okay. What are your thoughts there?
Kelechi: I think that it's definitely something that we should do. How we go about it, we put that into practice, well, that's slightly more challenging, because we know the power that people like Sally have in these organizations. Suddenly, you're getting your appraisals and they're saying that you're not a team player and suddenly, they're finding ways to make you want to leave. And I've heard so many stories of this happening to so many women especially, women of color especially, Black women most especially because of that title of being aggressive and intimidating and things like that. And it's just about breaking those tropes, but how you do it.
You do need allies — not allies like Sally, as she believes herself to be — but allies who are not people of color, who understand the power that they have and they come along, they give us that support so that we can make these changes. Because you speak out and then you're ostracized. What then? Because you've still got bills to pay. So it has to be a fine balance. It has to be a fine balance, and I hope that by making Sally in HR, more people are able to see these behaviors. They see the conversations happening around Sally so they can understand what they need to do to change, so therefore the brunt of the work is not left to people of color to do in their individual workplaces, that might mean that they get fired or that they become reclusive and their workplace.
Minda: Yeah. I could totally see, at least here in the States and I'm sure maybe abroad, Sally needs to … or you need to come in or somebody needs to come in and do these sorts of … it needs to be included in these diversity and inclusion trainings so that they can see themselves and hear, "This is what you should not be doing." But you're right, we do have to be very delicate with how we go about speaking out, but hopefully we do make good strategic alliances within the workplace so that others are advocating on our behalf as well.
Kelechi: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I think that's the way to go.
Minda: Yeah. Well, this is so great. How can our listeners connect with you and support you?
Kelechi: Oh, that's wonderful. Well, if they want to follow me, I'm on Instagram and Twitter as @kelechnekoff. So, that's probably the main way, that's the best way. And obviously I have the podcast that has … basically how Sally was developed really, was in that podcast, Say Your Mind, and that's everywhere like Spotify and everything else. So really here, especially if they're in the States, listeners in the States, they get to hear, but you're not alone, you're not mad, it's happening. It's a global phenomenon, it's happening. We're all here feeling very, very similar frustrations in our working environments and in our lives generally. And so then it kind of shows how she came to be.