Dear Captain Awkward,
My younger sister, let’s call her Bee, works as an executive assistant in a large, urban, corporate environment. Bee’s manager has recently mentioned, twice, that she is “coaching” my sister on developing better professional communication skills. In particular, she has expressed concerns that Bee is not “nice” enough in her emails to co-workers. She has mentioned that my sister does not use “smileys” and doesn’t start emails out with praising statements before doing something like asking for information. There has been no actual professional coaching, only these hints that my sister should be “sweeter” in her emails.
Here’s where I come in. When I say my sister is “nice,” that doesn’t quite get at the root of the matter. She is really, really nice. Doormat sweet. Works like a dog. Seriously. Rave performance reviews. Hours of overtime. Her superiors notice this–she is often singled out for extra projects, work, trips, etc. For example, she recently has been given some account management tasks and was also recently asked to attend a conference in Europe (where she literally worked so many hours a day she didn’t even go outside, but hey). I am 99.999999% sure there is no professionalism issue with my sister’s email communications.
Can you give us some scripts or ideas on how to talk about this with her manager?
My sister is not comfortable with direct confrontation and doesn’t always have a lot of self-confidence when talking about herself, but she is an amazing and hard-working woman. The thing is, I feel like this is a feminist issue. Strike that. This is a humanist issue. I believe that my sister is being penalized because she appears to be striving “above” her “place.” The suggestions her manager has made are not ones that will make my sister appear more professional–they are items that will make her seem more subservient, sweet/cute, passive, etc. I do not believe that these “suggestions” are being made in earnest, or with the intent to actually help my sister move forward in her career.
My sister doesn’t know much about Captain Awkward, but I’m a faithful reader. We would love some advice!
Not knowing your sister or her manager, I can’t tell if the subtext of this feedback is:
- “I, your manager, personally feel intimidated and threatened by you because you are outshining me and don’t kiss my ass enough.” As you pointed out in your question,sometimes young women (especially young black women) are singled out for this kind of “mentoring.” The same exact opinion can be “lovably eccentric” or “coldly threatening” depending on whether it’s expressed by a disheveled old white cis het dude vs. a polished young woman.
- “You, a woman, have been communicating like a man and that’s not okay with me (or some people above me).” As in, are SMILEYS really the norm in corporate communications, to the point that people feel HURT if they aren’t included? Is “sweetness” really the metric we use? This makes me >:-O.
- “Other people in the company have mentioned that they find your communications brusque and this is a legit attempt to help you with some soft skills” or “You are being groomed for more client-facing tasks, like account management, and what worked for just you and me in handling my stuff won’t necessarily work with them.” For example, when I visit Texas, people are way more syrupy-friendly-chatty to me than I naturally am to them, and I probably come off as a damned standoffish Yankee a lot of the time. If I moved there I’d have to make some adjustments in my communication style and a boss telling me so wouldn’t necessarily be out of line.
The me who does not actually work there would have a hard time not trolling, to be honest.
I ordered the supplies you requested, they should be here Thursday.
You look great today! I have ordered the supplies like you asked, they should be here Thursday. Have a great day. I value you as a person!!!!
P.S. :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)
Don’t do that, if that wasn’t clear. That’s just my instinctive response to really vague feedback like “be sweeter.”
Bee’s most constructive course is taking the feedback at face value and trying to grapple with what her manager wants. Bee could look at the emails her manager sends, and see if emulating that style exactly is more pleasing to that person. Since Bee is an executive assistant, this person has a lot of say over how they like things to be, and sometimes if your boss wants their stuff in a certain color folder or wants a smiley face at the end of the email it’s easier to throw it in for them (like when you argue in front of the In My Opinion judge on The Good Wife) than to argue.
Even more constructively, Bee could ask for specific examples.
- “Manager, I want to do my best to incorporate your feedback. Would you be willing to forward back to me one of the communications where I got it wrong and show me specifically how to get it right?”
- “Is this feedback in response to something specific (from a client or a colleague)? Would you be willing to walk me through exactly what I’ve been doing wrong and exactly what you need from me?”
- “Would you be willing to share with me an example you’ve written (or someone else in the company has written) that you think does this very well so I have something to work from? I really learn best when I can see an example.“
If Bee makes the request in person, she should send a follow-up email to document that she did so. If this is “know your place” feedback from a disingenuous manager, those examples will never appear, and the request will be treated very dismissively, like “come on, figure it out, it shouldn’t be hard!” That doesn’t mean a message from boss to employee wasn’t sent; it was, and that message is “Time to find a real mentor at a new position within this company or another. Polish up the old resume, Bee, you have risen as high under this manager as you ever will!”
If examples do come, Bee should try imitating them exactly and document that she is doing so so at performance review time it can be a thing that she can demonstrate “improvement” about. (If the examples don’t come, she should take one of her boss’s emails as a template and be able to show she did it. That way at performance review time if it comes up she can say “But look, I’ve been basing it off what you send out. Can you point out the problem?“) If “sweeter” becomes an impossible, moving target then Bee will also have some more information about how she should look for another assignment where she will be valued for the professional adult that she is.