American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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       Special Issue: The World of Work      WORKING IN REAL TIME

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The Next Big Step: How to Keep Your Job and Thrive in the Workplace

by Yusef Dale

Reprinted from the Illinois Independent, the Newsletter of the NFB of Illinois, Summer 2019

Yusef DaleFrom the Editor: Yusef Dale is a lawyer with the US Attorney's office in Chicago. This article is based on a presentation he delivered at the Midwest Student Seminar in April 2019. His thoughtful comments are not only relevant to blind lawyers and other professionals. What he says is sound advice for any blind person who has entered the workforce. Mr. Dale is direct about the challenges we face as blind people, but he explains how we can meet those challenges and build lasting success.

At this seminar you've heard quite a bit about interviewing and getting hired for your first job. This morning I'd like to talk about what happens next. Once you get that job, you have to do some key things in order to retain that employment and to advance.

Reputation: The Guiding Principle

It may surprise you, but when it comes to keeping a job and advancing in the workplace, the guiding principle is reputation.

What do I mean by reputation? Reputation is part of the human condition in almost every institution. People talk. As a blind person, you're going to be scrutinized more carefully than most. People are going to talk about you more than they talk about other people. You have to be prepared for that reality.
Reputation has its own momentum, and that momentum is exponential. When you start on the job, you need to get your reputation rolling in the right direction. To build that favorable momentum you have to be excellent at what you do, and you have to be excellent early!

Let me assure you that being excellent does not mean you have to be perfect. There's no such thing as perfection! Excellence, though, does mean striving for perfection and striving for it sincerely, with everything you have.

In the workplace reputation is key for everyone, whether you're blind or sighted. But when you are blind people will attribute any mistake you make to your blindness. And guess what—you cannot undo your blindness! You are going to have to take your reputation seriously in the beginning and be excellent.

No Shortcuts!

What steps do you need to take in order to be excellent? The first thing I want to say is no shortcuts! No shortcuts! I cannot tell you how important this is!

I work at the US Attorney's office in Chicago. It's a very prestigious office, one of the top litigation offices in the country, maybe just behind the Southern District of New York. Pat Fitzgerald was the US attorney when I started, and he is legendary. When he was working in New York he prosecuted some of the biggest bomb terrorism cases. When I came to the US Attorney's office, I knew right away that I was going to be scrutinized. I said to myself, "Yusef, no shortcuts!"

The first thing you have to do to implement the no-shortcuts strategy is read, read, read! When you start a job you're going to undergo a training program for new employees. You're going to go to lectures, you're going to take notes, and you're going to get a vast amount of written material. Inevitably you'll be tempted not to read it all. You might think, "I'll go to the lectures, and I'll take notes on everything the trainers talk about. I'll learn that way." Don't do that! Read everything, and make sure you understand it all. If you don't understand something, ask questions of someone whose trust you have gained so that they don't judge you.

Once you start with the substance of your job, you're going to get what we call "go-bys." Everything has a go-by. For instance, in my office somebody has prosecuted a multi-defendant gang case, and they all pled out. What does the plea agreement look like? What does the cooperation agreement look like? If I'm flipping one person against another, what does that look like? Give me a document I can go by.

Go-bys are part of what everyone does, but sometimes you're tempted not to read those documents all the way through. You might think, "This paragraph is in every plea agreement—I don't have to understand it. I'll just put it in." Don't do that! Read and make sure you understand every statute. Don't fall to the temptation of not reading everything and not understanding everything. Remember that your reputation is everything, and if it gets rolling in the wrong direction, you're done.

As blind people we cannot afford the leeway of taking shortcuts. Question everything. Research everything. Make sure you know that everything in your document is right! Be excellent!

Ask the Right Question

The next thing I want to tell you is to ask the right question, and ask it in the right way. Everyone has questions starting out in a new job. But everything applies to us disproportionately as blind people, so what we ask and how we ask it is very important.

What does it mean to ask the right question in the right way? No one respects a person who comes into their office and says, "Hey, what's the answer to this?" When you ask a question in the workplace, particularly if you're blind, you need to demonstrate that you have context for your question. You need to show that you have tried to answer the question before you go into your colleague's office.

Soon after I started at the US Attorney's office I dropped by the office of Lisa, one of my coworkers. I said, "I'm having an issue with understanding the safety-valve proffer. I've read Guidelines Section 5 K 1.1. I've read the statute that applies. Here's what the statute says, and the seminal case says this. Here's what I don't understand." I didn't just walk in and ask Lisa a question. I made sure she knew I had tried hard to get the answer. I showed her that I was thinking and that I'm not lazy. 

I cannot tell you how important it is to ask the right question in the right way. Guess what's going to happen! The next time Lisa talks to one of her buddies, she'll say, "Wow! That new hire who's blind, he came into my office with a question, and you could tell he had read and researched before he asked me." Because we're blind, people are not going to expect that from us. There's a lot of depth to the ignorance out there in the work world. They will assume the worst unless you ask the right question in the right way.

Be Intentional

Be intentional about demonstrating your work ethic. Make sure people know you're willing to work long hours. When I first got to the US Attorney's office I worked seven days a week a lot of the time. I worked till seven, eight, or nine every night, and people knew it. You can't be phony about it, of course. Don't send a 10 p.m. email if you don't have to send a 10 p.m. email! People will see through that! But if you have to send an email at 10 or 11 p.m., send it! You want people to know you have a strong work ethic, that you're willing to work long hours, and you're willing to work hard.

As a blind person coming into a new job, you have to deal with one huge issue that other people aren't dealing with. You have to learn to do your job without sight. That's an additional challenge that requires some extra work. Don't be ashamed to let people know you work hard. They're going to tell their friends, "Hey, I see him here on the weekends! I see him here late at night!" They respect you for that, and your reputation gets rolling in the right direction.

No Excuses!

My next point is really a big one. Don't allow others to make excuses for you! I know you folks in here are not going to make excuses for yourselves. You've achieved a certain amount of success, and you're used to not making excuses for yourselves—at least you should be! But a sneaky thing happens in the work world. People will try to make excuses for you. It can be very subtle, and you might not notice at first. Your boss might come to your office and say, "You're doing great work here. But we've got these mortgage fraud cases, and they have a gigantic document load. We'll give you some other cases instead. You'll be doing the same amount of work as everyone else. We're just not going to assign you these document-heavy cases."
When that happens, the answer is no! Never let people make excuses for you and tell you what you cannot do. They may sound like they're complimenting you, but they're setting you up for failure. They're saying to themselves, "There are certain things I can't ask that employee to do." I don't want to sound melodramatic, but that is going to doom you to failure.

Once I got a lecture about this issue from someone I really liked and respected. So when that assignment came up I said, "I can do mortgage fraud cases. I've got this." And when you do the mortgage case and do it well, your reputation gets rolling! It's cooking now! It's cooking! So never let anyone make excuses for you!
Here's another example that was important in my career. I was handling a case with a really great prosecutor. She clerked for a Supreme Court justice. I always strive for excellence, but this time I understood I'd be measured by an especially tall yardstick. Whatever the prosecutor said about me—and she would say something, because that's human nature!—whatever she said, I needed it to be good!
The case was a more or less straightforward bank robbery, but a lot of surveillance video was involved. Dealing with video is one of the biggest challenges for a blind person in this profession. You have to figure out how to explain it to a jury. The prosecutor said, nicely, "I'll handle this main FBI agent, because there's this video. But we'll still question the same number of witnesses."

I said no. Once I knew she thought I'd have trouble with the FBI agent, I insisted that I take that witness. I was really direct with her because I liked and trusted her. I said, "If I don't do this, you'll have doubts about whether I can do it. It's important that you not have those doubts."

I went out to the bank like we always do. I looked at the terrain. I had an assistant explain to me what was in the video, exactly what time things were happening. I went over and over it in my head. I went back to the bank. I walked the terrain again to make sure I understood it, and I put that FBI witness on the stand. It came out fine, and that's the point. The prosecutor was ready to make an excuse for me. But once I knew she thought I couldn't deal with the video, I insisted that I do it.

Write It Right!

The last thing I want to talk about is proofreading your written work. If something goes wrong, you will not get the benefit of the doubt. I know, because I've been there. I know other blind professionals who've gone through it. When you're writing something in an email, be very, very careful about your grammar and your spelling! Make sure you have automatic spell-check turned on before you send an email. If you know you confuse certain words in your head, make sure you don't confuse them when you send out emails or when you turn in written product.

All day I write, write, write! People think lawyers spend all their time in court, but mostly I write. I write motions and sentencing memos. I write a prosecution memo at the beginning. I draft the indictment. Frankly, writing is not one of my gifts. I've become a good writer, but I had to work on it. For instance, I know the difference between except and accept, but when I'm typing like crazy at my computer, for some unknown reason I'll write except when I mean accept, like to accept an agreement. I've got to double-check it every time. 

Listen, you might make a mistake. I've made one or two! But if your reputation gets rolling in the right way, people know you're a person who works hard. Then you'll get the benefit of the doubt.

Human Assistants

Now I want to talk quickly about working with a human assistant, such as a reader or a driver. In the law business we have secretaries. The duties of my assistant sometimes extend a little beyond the usual, but it's not a big deal.

One thing an assistant can do for you is proofread your documents for formatting, because weird things happen sometimes when you're typing. One time I had two pages that were all in italics. I had no idea how it happened! When your document goes to the court or to your supervisor, you want it to be impeccable.
Make sure your assistant knows his or her role. Your assistant's job is not to think for you. Your assistant's job is to serve as your eyes. Carefully and delicately make sure your assistant understands that. In the work world people will sometimes try to give your assistant credit for the work you do. It's shocking, but it's something we all live with as blind people. When you refer to your assistant in your workplace, make sure people understand his or her role. I might say casually, "She sees well, and that's all I really need from her."
These are the things I think are really important about retaining employment once you have it. Get your reputation going, be excellent, no shortcuts, make sure you're doing things the right way, ask the right questions. I want to end with a story that speaks to these points.

I got to the US Attorney's office in 2007. I had previously worked for the Social Security Administration. I went to the US Attorney's office on what they call a detail. The Social Security Administration sends over an attorney to prosecute criminal fraud against Social Security. So you're sitting in the US Attorney's office, but you still work for Social Security.

Anybody who goes to the US Attorney's office from Social Security wants to stay there. It's a very prestigious office. You'll never have another job like it! I knew that once I worked for Pat Fitzgerald I could say that for the rest of my career! So I went there with the attitude that I was going to be excellent.

One of my first trials was a complicated bank fraud case. The defendant was accused of embezzling money from a bank where she worked and shuffling funds among various accounts. Then she orchestrated a bank robbery to try to cover up the theft! I was on that trial, and I actually put the bank witness on the stand. It was hugely complicated! There were rows and rows of debits and credits, numbers all over the place! I had to explain it during my direct testimony, and then I had to explain it at closing. My closing argument was not as good as I would have liked it to be, but I had those numbers down pat! I was able to explain everything to the jury. I showed them where those debits went and how this woman set up the bank robbery so she could pretend the money had been stolen.

The judge in that case was a former prosecutor from our office. She saw all the work I'd done. I didn't take any shortcuts. She saw that.

At the end of my two years, when my detail was nearly over, I wrote Pat Fitzgerald a letter. I said I wanted to stay on and become an assistant United States attorney. Pat Fitzgerald said, "You've done good work here. Let me go back and do my due diligence, and I'll let you know the decision of the office."

Later he came back, and he said, "We'd like to have you stay on. You're an addition to the office." Then I went next-door to Lisa. I said, "Wow! I've got some good news! I'm actually staying on!" And she said, "I know. I'm on the hiring committee." So all that time I was working and asking questions, she was assessing me. And, because the judge on that bank embezzlement trial was a former prosecutor in the office, and because she randomly happened to be assigned to a few of my cases, it would not have been unusual for her to share her impressions with the office. I feel pretty certain that, if she did so, she had favorable things to say.

That's the point of the story. You never know who you're talking to. It's important to remember that. Be excellent, and get your reputation going in the right way. It will lead you to success in the workplace.

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