Existing Behind a Mask of Workplace Complacency

Just after lunch on Friday, September 6, 2019, I walked by the small office of my supervisor for the last time. As I entered the dimly lit elevator bay, laughter crashed out of the accounting department across the way.

The right elevator doors slid open as soon as I pressed the down button. Walking into its emptiness, I turned around in time to see the investment banking firm’s chipped logo disappear from view.

Landing into the expansiveness of the hi-rise’s sparsely furnished lobby, I headed towards the back of the building. Los Angeles’s late summer heat engulfed me as I pushed out onto the concrete path leading to the multilevel parking garage.

A few minutes later, my car’s air conditioning cooled its dark interior as it idled quietly on the first level of the structure. Maneuvering the manual gear shift into reverse, I backed out, then drove towards the parking attendant waiting in the tiny booth. Merging into the congestion of L.A.’s early afternoon traffic, I headed east towards Hollywood. “Well,” I said aloud. “I guess that’s it. There go twenty-six years of working there.”

I started at the firm in early May 1993 as a file clerk, the perfect job for someone moving to Los Angeles from Tucson, Arizona to pursue acting. Within a couple of years, I sunk into the realization that my self-confidence lacked the wind needed to sail through the challenges of succeeding in the entertainment industry. And with a desire that eroded to surviving in L.A., I stayed at the investment banking firm. Eventually, I sifted through the corporate ranks to become a lead graphic designer.

“I settled into a complacency of receiving a steady paycheck…”

Things didn’t go according to plan in the two years since leaving the firm. My hope, when I boarded my flight to Stockholm, Sweden on October 1, 2019, was to land into the professional arena I’d stumbled into years before in Los Angeles. When my roommate dropped me off in front of a nondescript five-story bank building on the western edge of Century City, a prominent L.A. neighborhood and business district.

Leaving my life in L.A. to try my hand at living in Stockholm wasn’t a hasty decision. I’d been wanting to do it since my inaugural trip to the city in early August 2015. That visit was the first time I’d landed in a place, feeling an energy that was comfortable and familiar. Like many things in my life, my plan to move to Sweden was methodical and controlled. And included a two-plus-year financial cushion to see me through things while looking for full-time employment.

Going between Sweden and the UK as a freelance graphic designer while looking for full-time work helped me to acknowledge something. I settled into a complacency of receiving a steady paycheck while employed at the investment banking firm. Through the years, it diminished my desire to believe in something. I worked hard, earned well, and learned a lot. But I wasn’t working towards a purpose. I wasn’t fueled by passion. I went through the motions of trudging through the work week, namely to get to the weekend.

I worked out of fear of losing a sense of security. I didn’t know earning a living could coexist with having a purpose. I never slowed down to ask myself, “Erick, who are you? And what do you want?”

I had no faith in myself. I believed in a Higher Reality, a positive energy source outside of myself. But I didn’t realize I could also believe in myself. Which may explain why I worked with individuals, management and colleagues, who discouraged effective communication while minimizing my contributions.

Since leaving the investment banking firm, I’ve admitted that my relationship with them was unhealthy. “Work is a relationship, not a contract. And, far too many employees are trapped in a dysfunctional work relationship (TalentCulture.com).”

I also suffered from toxic positivity, “the belief that people should put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic (Medical News Today, 2021).” Navigating the world this way kept me in a work environment that fostered a belief that I was unworthy of support and positive reinforcement. My challenges with expressing discomfort weren’t rooted in my dealings with my former employer. That being said, I worked with individuals who negated my knowledge and challenged my abilities.

It’s not possible to fully thrive in a negative work environment. My experiences taught me that working with individuals who failed to support their employees created a culture that was “joyless and unhappy (The Balance Careers, 2021).” And I worked on teams where responsibilities were heaped on with minimal or no training. It fostered despondency and agitation.

My initial guilt with admitting to the negativity I worked in eventually dissipated, opening up the pathway for me to cycle through the “normal feelings often experienced when a relationship ends (HealtyPlace.com, 2019)”. This in turn increased my belief in the possibility of working in a positive environment.

“I’ve discovered others are interested in my knowledge, skills, and creative visions.”

Since the broadcast of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder, public discourse has resurfaced around racism. As a black gay man, I looked at how this affected my tenure with my former employer. As stated in a June 2021 article for Stanford Social Innovation Review, “…Black employees still face obstacles to advancement and are less likely than their white peers to be hired, developed, and promoted. Workplace discrimination adds stress and threatens an employee’s sense of belonging and overall well-being…”

I often dismissed racism as a reason for my limited advancement within the investment banking firm. However, after a strategy meeting I helmed during the summer of 2019, a white colleague stated he noticed our superior focused only on him and the other white male employee during the presentation. I noticed it too. And this observation from someone else helped me to acknowledge other slights I’d experienced and denied.

As a freelancer in Europe, I’ve seen that my professional experience has value. I’ve discovered others are interested in my knowledge, skills, and creative visions. Collaborations with clients have increased my awareness of my worth. Just as importantly, they’ve openly given me credit for my contributions.

Thanks to my friend Jenny’s idea back in February 2020 to create a podcast for introverts, we became co-hosts of the Wallflowers in Bloom podcast. Through this venture, we discovered our gifts for interviewing and creating a supportive community. This led to me later creating and hosting Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast, a platform for black LGBTQ+ global citizens to come together to inspire and educate each other on who we are in our respective countries and professions.

As a podcast host and producer, I’ve discovered a purpose. And I’ve learned that earning a living can encompass more than making money. There can be a possibility of enjoying what I do while helping others to bring about positive changes.

Discovering faith in myself has helped me to see I have choices. And that I don’t have to limit myself to the lowered expectations of others. I can believe in the possibility of having a good life. And that it can include the company I work for and the colleagues I work with.

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Erick Taylor Woodby

Erick Taylor Woodby

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Writer and host of “Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast,” for Black LGBTQ+ citizens to educate on who they are in their countries and professions.