Black professional sitting in an office, holding a tablet with one hand and the other palm turned upward, and talking to white coworkers
Bailey Zelena; Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Pabel Martinez grew up in New York City’s famous Upper West Side—the home of world-class museums, posh restaurants, bustling tourist destinations, and celebrities like Macaulay Culkin, who lived right down the street. But while he shared a zip code with some of the wealthiest people in the country, he resided in public housing.

Years later, Martinez, who identifies as Afro-Latino, would find himself in a similar juxtaposition in his professional life. He embarked on a career in tech and landed coveted roles at two social media giants, but often felt he had to suppress parts of his identity—like his taste in music and his hobbies outside of work—just to fit in with his colleagues and company culture.

Frustrated with those pressures and with the microaggressions he had to deal with at work, Martinez decided to strike out on his own and build PLURAWL, a lifestyle brand dedicated to addressing the stigmas and stereotypes that cause professionals to compromise their authentic selves in the workplace. To that end, PLURAWL’s TikTok account features content that addresses stereotypes, offers insight on navigating the corporate world, and challenges what’s perceived to be professional in the workplace.

There’s a growing number of TikTok creators who, like Martinez, are posting videos to help minorities navigate corporate America. A quick search under #BlackInCorporateAmerica, for example, pulls up a host of videos where Black professionals can find an assortment of helpful tips, thought-provoking commentary, and comedic entertainment.

As a Black man working in corporate America myself, I’ve found a great deal of inspiration and advice from this content. Here’s how TikTok is helping me and other Black professionals get ahead.

@plurawl #corporate #wagegap #salarytransparency #corporatelife #linkedin #equalpay #equaloayday #codeswitch #codeswitching #podcast #podcasts #art #arte ♬ original sound - PLURAWL

Fighting for better pay

Early on in my career, I rarely negotiated for a higher salary when I was offered a new position. Even when it came to raises, I would always accept what was given to me without asking for more. At the time, I refrained because I didn’t have the confidence to advocate for myself.

Research has shown that job evaluators’ racial bias leads them to see Black employees as less deserving of higher wages, which helps them justify lower salaries in negotiations. Without even knowing there was hard data behind it, I’d internalized the notion that I didn’t deserve what I was worth.

But when I started seeing videos on TikTok that talked about these issues, like this one from Martinez and this one from another account, I was inspired to ask for higher pay. From there, I followed creator Jha’nee Carter’s advice in keeping a personal development notebook that allowed me to track all of my accomplishments and highlights throughout the year. Then, when it was time for my annual review, I had a list of reasons to prove why I deserved a certain percentage increase. The plan worked and I got what I asked for.

Giving people that knowledge gives them the power.

Jha’nee Carter

I’m not the only one Carter’s helped. For over two decades, she held high-level positions in management and human resources at noteworthy law firms. Last year, she quit her job and founded her own business that provides corporate mentorship and consulting for minorities. Since launching her TikTok page under the name @_thehrqueen in 2021, she’s amassed more than 150,000 followers and many of her posts—like this one and this one—have gone viral. She covers an array of different topics, including negotiating better compensation in a world where Black professionals continue to be paid less than their white counterparts.

“This has been going on for years and it’s not going to change,” Carter says, not if knowledge of the inner workings of corporate America continues to be less accessible to some employees. In addition to helping minorities prove their worth, she also helps them understand behind-the-scenes details of budget planning and other factors that play into determining their salaries.

“Giving people that knowledge gives them the power to say, ‘No, I understand business and I know you’re going to throw out the lowest offer that you can. I’m not going to accept that. This is what I know and this is what I’m worth.’”

@_thehrqueen #corporatetiktok #personaldevelopment #mentorforu #learnontiktok #askontiktok #jobs #corporate #hrtiktok #MaiselChallenge #MakeItGucci ♬ original sound - #HRQUEEN™️ | Corporate Mentor

Being part of a community

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, companies nationwide vowed to stand with Black Americans and improve their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. But data shows that while 95% of Black professionals in the U.S. agree that it’s important for companies to promote racial equality, 80% believe they can do more.

With a dearth of safe spaces in corporate environments, Black professionals are forced to turn elsewhere to express their experiences, ideas, and concerns about their careers. Josiane Galley, a New York-based Black professional who works in media ad sales, says that TikTok is her refuge.

“It’s definitely nice when you find a community of people with similar backgrounds who have shared experiences,” she says. The video platform “feels really authentic and organic and it’s something that you don’t encounter too much in the corporate space. So it’s nice to have that.”

I don’t think there are many spaces, particularly tied to work, where Black people can feel comfortable being themselves.

Ekow Sanni-Thomas

TikTok creator Ekow Sanni-Thomas echoes her sentiments. “I don’t think there are many spaces, particularly tied to work, where Black people can feel comfortable being themselves,” says Thomas, who worked in the real estate sector for over 11 years. “We are taught to not do that.”

Across TikTok, creators and users alike are more raw than they are on Instagram and Facebook—and certainly Black professionals can be far more open on the platform than they can be in the workplace. Perhaps that comfort and sense of permission to be honest is one of the reasons why TikTok has become the world’s most-downloaded app.

@plurawl #careeradvice #blackincorporate #blackcorporate #podcasts #podcast #latino #hispanic #blackcorporatetiktok #latina #wfh #latinxcreatives #professionalism #redefineprofessionalism #latinasincorporate #womenincorporate #corporate #corporatelife #corporatetiktok #afrotech ♬ original sound - PLURAWL

Challenging definitions of professionalism

Over the years, there have been countless stories of Black employees calling out their employers for considering their natural hairstyles “unprofessional.” But Danielle “Elle” Holmes, the owner of Career Services by Elle, based in the Philadelphia area, says that seeing videos on TikTok of other Black professionals confidently rocking their natural tresses in the workplace has been inspiring.

“One of the complexities in the corporate world is what’s considered professional,” she says. “I feel like representation matters, and seeing people who look like me and then being able to say, ‘If she can do it, then maybe I can have the courage to do the same thing.’”

If she can do it, then maybe I can have the courage to do the same thing.

Danielle “Elle” Holmes

In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill called the Crown ACT, which would ban race-based hair discrimination at work, and sent it on to the Senate. It’s not yet federal law, but at least 19 states and numerous cities across the U.S. have already adopted similar measures. Although it’s apparent that the tide is turning, Black hair in the workplace is still stigmatized to this day. As are other supposed markers of a lack of “professionalism,” like tattoos, certain clothing, and speech outside of white standard English.

Martinez frequently challenges workplace biases on his page and often reminds his viewers that the true definition of professionalism is the skill or competency needed to do a particular job. He just wants minorities to be their authentic selves while doing their jobs and pursuing their careers, no matter who they are.

“We all have a bias based on our own personal experiences,” he says. “The bias is natural. I just want to raise awareness for it so we can learn these things faster.”

@insidevoices.io Any time champ! #insidevoices #blackincorporate #woke #blackatwork #discrimination ♬ youre welcome - 🍪

Holding organizations accountable and pushing for change

After witnessing firsthand how his employers in corporate America didn’t truly value diversity and inclusion, Sanni-Thomas built an online platform named Inside Voices to hold companies across the board accountable. The website offers diversity, equity, and inclusion solutions to employers and allows professionals an opportunity to sound off anonymously on how well their companies are doing when it comes to DEI.

Following the launch of the site, Sanni-Thomas created a TikTok account that offers helpful information and survival tips for professionals of color. Now he has nearly 40,000 followers on the platform and some of his posts—like this funny one about calling out microaggressions and this one about racist coworkers—have amassed up to one million views.

I would love to see companies embrace the creator rather than fear the creator, which is where we are now.

Ekow Sanni-Thomas

Looking ahead, Sanni-Thomas hopes the work of creators in the space can lead to more transparency about diversity and belonging at organizations large and small. And he hopes employers will join forces with creators on the platform instead of working against them. He points, for instance, to the story of DeAndre Brown, a popular Black TikTok creator who also refers to himself as “The Corporate Baddie.” After amassing more than 500,000 followers on the platform for his skits about being his authentic self in the corporate world, Brown quit his job once he got word that his employer wanted to terminate him because of his posts.

“I would like to see corporations put their arms around the creators to say, ‘Hey, you’re already posting content. Reflect how you feel about this situation, good and bad and we’ll be held accountable for the bad... And we’ll also benefit from the good,’” Sanni-Thomas says. “I would love to see companies embrace the creator rather than fear the creator, which is where we are now.”

In the future—perhaps one where employers heed the feedback they get from Black employees in the form of TikTok videos—Martinez hopes the work that he and other creators do on the platform can influence policies and culture in corporate America.

“All of the content I do is just a vehicle for conversation that’s ultimately going to spark change,” he says.

Updated 10/13/2022