We should not still be struggling to figure out how to behave in the workplace. But it seems there’s no end to the pitfalls and traps that await us with each offhand comment or joke we make. A few years ago, I received a piece of advice that stuck with me and has helped me navigate the choppy waters of office life ever since: Don’t treat others the way YOU want to be treated. Treat them the way THEY want to be treated.
This twist on the Golden Rule seems particularly useful for our day and age. Instead of thinking about our own perceptions of things, we must try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and really consider the impact of our words and actions on them. This requires a lot more work, because not only do we have to be in touch with our own feelings, we have to comprehend the vast spectrum of emotions experienced by those around us.
The value of this simple piece of advice hit home earlier this year when a vendor I had worked with in the past reached out to see if he could get more business from me. The fact was, I had decided never to contact him again because I didn’t like the way he treated me. Back then, when I told him about a concern from one of my clients regarding his work, he simply brushed it off, responding with a lack of professionalism that I found inappropriate.
This time, I thought I’d do the guy a favor by telling him why I was disappointed in his work. I figured that he’d appreciate getting some honest feedback so he could adjust and win more business. Instead, he responded angrily and defensively. He told me I was “wrong,” that my client’s concern was “not valid,” and that I was out of line for even bringing it up.
His words seemed vaguely sexist to me. Would he talk like that to my male colleagues?
So I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, telling him his response offended me and asking if he intended that. But rather than apologizing, he doubled down: He told me to ask my competitors (mostly male, by the way) and they’d surely tell me he was in the right. He said I was being “irrational” and “misinterpreting” him. He implied I was too young and inexperienced to know better, even though we’re about the same age. And then, the icing on the cake, he suggested I behave more like his ex-wife, who had forgiven him for both his real and “imagined” transgressions.
Why had I given him the benefit of the doubt? This guy was being sexist.
Would he have said that to a male CEO? Of course not. Would he have pushed and pushed, telling me that I was not “valid,” that my presumed “youth” and “inexperience” were the reasons why I had a concern with his business? Of course not. Most of the other male CEOs on his competitor list who have “successfully” done it are younger than me and one of them even worked for me.
Most of the people I work with claim to share my progressive values, including this vendor. But the truth is that these discriminatory attitudes can be found in every part of our society. Even the most “enlightened” among us can still be completely unaware of their biases and unable to recognize when their words and actions are offensive or hurtful.
My journey to running a multimillion-dollar company with 40 employees wasn’t always easy. I’ve experienced plenty of sexism along the way — losing clients because they worried I was too busy raising my kids or having my credentials questioned because of my perceived youth and inexperience. So I’ve chosen to build a firm that recruits women, trains them, elevates them to top positions, and even prepares them for careers beyond our organization.
I do this because it’s my responsibility to help create a society that champions equality, respect, and kindness.
Outside of our “office” (I use quotes because we are all virtual at the moment), I am frequently the sole female at meetings. Inside, our business is majority female and our C-suite is 75% female. I am proud of how many women we have recruited and trained. Many of them have gone on to do amazing things in the digital space, and I am proud to have given them a home along the way. I am also proud of how many women continue to grow within our “walls.”
During this past year of COVID, societal unrest, and racial inequality, we’ve all had to learn how to think beyond ourselves, to consider the impact our words and actions have on the well-being of others. Some have chosen to deride this increased sensitivity to other people’s health and other people’s feelings — lashing out at wokeness in the same way they ridiculed liberalism or political correctness. But I and so many others have chosen to embrace it, because we know that the only way to make the world a better place is to shed our own notions of the way people ought to be treated and instead do the difficult work of trying to understand how they want to be treated.