These Coded Words Reveal Bosses' Biases Against Certain Employees

Subjective labels like "difficult," "angry" or "challenging" are codes that signal who is not a "fit" in a workplace.
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Subjective labels aren’t just words at work. How people are perceived and reviewed affects who’s promoted or fired.

When Niedria Kenny was an assistant manager for a large property management company in Alabama, her colleagues told her she was “difficult,” “a strong personality,” “angry.”

When Kenny asked them to give examples, she said she never got a sufficient answer. In fact, “asking the question to which they had no answer” seemed only to validate to them that she was difficult, Kenny said.

Defining job performance with this type of subjective language is a common, insidious way that managers and coworkers can marginalize those who don’t fit their own ideas of office culture, which is historically white, able-bodied and male. People who don’t fit that profile often receive this type of vague negative feedback, which can hurt their careers.

“That’s where a lot of this stuff starts to show up: Someone thought they were doing a great job only to find out in performance review time they weren’t,” said Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting, a firm that advises businesses on diversity and inclusion. Someone might hear something like, “‘Well, on that one project I needed you to be more entrepreneurial and you weren’t.’ And the person is sitting there going, ‘What did that mean? I did the thing. How am I supposed to be doing it differently?’”

Too often, subjective language simply cloaks a manager’s personal biases about who belongs or who they prefer to work with. It often comes in the blanket statement, “You’re not a good fit,” which allows managers to get away with making career and hiring decisions based on personal feelings and ill-defined descriptions rather than evidence-based feedback. “This person wasn’t a fit for us,” a manager might say. And how can anyone argue when the standard of who is a good fit has never been objectively defined and the feedback isn’t actionable?

“It becomes a way to get rid of people that either make you feel uncomfortable for one reason or another, or they’re displaying the values differently than the white majority in your company would,” Sanchez said.

Subjective language can reinforce racist, sexist systems that define who does not fit in at work.

Subjective language is often weaponized when employees diverge in race or gender. Women of color in particular face what researchers call “double jeopardy,” because they deal with both gender and racial biases at work. Kenny, who is Black, believes deep-rooted stereotypes against Black people played a role in why she was called “angry” by her white female co-workers.

“The term ‘angry’ seems to be the ‘easy button’ for some individuals to call you when they need a way out or to shut down a conversation,” Kenny said. “Since I was and have been an extremely calm person, very even-keel, I honestly felt that this was a term used because it has become almost a norm to categorize the race and gender.”

Kenny said the ways Black people express themselves can be misinterpreted, but to be called angry “is damaging nonetheless.” It’s true this kind of subjective language being used in the workplace is not just about an interpersonal disagreement, said Soraya Chemaly, author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger” and executive director of The Representation Project.

“It’s not just that a person has a bias and is aggressive about it using this kind of denigrating language,” she said. “It is that that person’s biases and language gain strength in the systems in which they operate. They’re actually generally rewarded for these biases.”

In other words, in the American corporate setting, discrediting a Black woman as “angry” is one more way the concept of “culture fit” is twisted to uphold white male ideals at the expense of everyone who doesn’t fit that category. Although the idea of ensuring employees are a good “culture fit” is most often promoted during hiring, it follows new hires into the workplace and influences how much room they’re given to settle in or use their talents. Those who do fit into the preexisting office culture, and who use this type of language to suggest that others don’t, reinforce the historical framework that is already biased against women, people of color, immigrants, caregivers, workers with disabilities, LGBTQ employees and more.

Organizational development specialist Amy Jeffers was penalized due to the biased ways men and women leaders are perceived differently. She was given the subjective label “challenging to manage,” and it stuck with her for most of her career, she told HuffPost.

“I kept reading the leadership business books that the men around me were recommending and trying out the ‘tips and tricks’ for success, only to come up against that ‘challenging’ label,” Jeffers wrote, responding to a HuffPost comment on social media. “Strong voice = challenging. Asking questions = challenging. Pushing for attention on female leaders, specifically working moms = challenging. Focusing on morale versus productivity = distracted and challenging. It’s amazing how much this creeps into your professional psyche.”

For marketing and communications professional Mindy Claggett, it took the form of being told she was “too direct” in emails. Claggett said she prefers to communicate clearly because she doesn’t believe in “wasting people’s time by writing insincere emails before finally getting to the real reason I am contacting them.”

This was not welcomed by her boss. “I just want our PR person to be known as the nicest person on campus!” Claggett said she was told in a review.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s due to my being a woman, because how many men get told they are ‘too direct’ and ‘not nice enough?’” Claggett said. She has since forced herself to put “fluff in emails, like asking people how they’re doing,” even though it is not her preference.

Subjective labels aren’t just words. How people are perceived and reviewed affects who’s promoted or fired.

When evaluators don’t consider how their assessments can be gendered, for example, it keeps leadership male. Researchers analyzed 81,000 military leadership evaluations for a study published in the scientific journal Sex Roles, and found that men and women had been labeled with different attributes in feedback even though their performances were the same by more objective measures like fitness scores and class standings. At the most negative extreme, women were more likely to be evaluated with words like inept, frivolous, gossip, excitable, scattered, temperamental, panicky and indecisive; men were more often criticized as arrogant and irresponsible.

Though all negative, these different designations have different stakes. As the researchers described it in Harvard Business Review, “An arrogant employee may have a character flaw ― and a negative impact on his work environment ― but may still be able to accomplish the task or job. An inept person, in contrast, is clearly not qualified and presumably on her way out.

“Industries and professions are desperately trying to retain talented women who often receive formal and informal messaging that they do not belong and do not fit, as well as are penalized for their authentic leadership style,” the researchers continued.

Subjective feedback can confirm to an employee that unless they conform to a company’s or manager’s homogenous idea of success, then they’re not going to get access to the best opportunities, said diversity and inclusion consultant Jennifer Tardy. The people who make decisions on advancement “are often people in that homogenous group, and they are also perpetuating it by saying, ‘We know that we became successful here.’”

Tardy, who is Black, said she experienced this when a white colleague was promoted over her due to that colleague’s close working relationship with senior leadership. “Many of the members of the senior leadership team were very uncomfortable working with a Black woman,” Tardy said. “This access that she had, by being a white woman, it gave her the ability to work more closely, because they felt more comfortable.”

Her colleagues’ discomfort was confirmed when a peer told Tardy that a member of senior leadership wanted to have a white co-worker in the room when meeting one-on-one with Tardy, because it made him more comfortable.

“When it comes to people who may be different from you, where do you feel a level of resistance? Resistance doesn’t always manifest with hate. Sometimes it can manifest with just avoiding a conversation with a person.”

- Jennifer Tardy, diversity and inclusion consultant

Tardy said people seeking to learn more about how to be better at diversity, equity and inclusion need to ask themselves where they feel discomfort as they work with others.

“When it comes to people who may be different from you, where do you feel a level of resistance? Resistance doesn’t always manifest with hate,” she said. “Sometimes it can manifest with just avoiding a conversation with a person, or you can be talking to that person but avoiding going deeper and building a relationship or building a rapport, because you’re afraid of using the wrong words.“

Getting beyond this internal resistance means first acknowledging that it may be present, and then evaluating how it may play out in feedback. Applying specific, evidence-based criteria for performance evaluations company-wide can limit the power of implicit biases in assessments. The stakes are high: If managers continue to rely on gut reactions and subjective language when making evaluations, employees on the receiving end of these demoralizing, highly ambiguous statements will continue to be sidelined.

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