Death by a Thousand Cuts

Yesterday Sherry Lansing, Paramount's CEO and the most powerful woman in Hollywood, was honored at a breakfast hosted by the Hollywood Reporter and Lifetime Television at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Lansing, who plans soon to leave the movie business for a "third chapter" of her life in public service, recalled her climb up the ladder in an industry that had long been notorious for treating women like Barbie dolls. In the 1970s, when Lansing asked for a raise, an executive at MGM told her she was "making quite enough for a woman." Years later, when she was up for a promotion at Columbia Pictures, a board member scoffed at the idea that any self-respecting man would ever deign to report to a woman.

The list of slights Lansing had suffered during her long and illustrious career reminded me of a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal about the new hot topic in the workplace — the identification of microinequities. These are the little slights, snubs, put-downs that all of us have suffered on the job that work to undermine our confidence and sense of self-worth.

For example, on the way into work today, a friend told me of being in line for a promotion, only to have a superior tell her that while she was spectacularly qualified for the job, the company was hoping for more of a "Wow" candidate. A rising star at another company here in NY, said a boss told her she was not allowed to speak at a meeting with outside vendors about a project she had handled because she was "junior staff."

While all these examples happen to be of women, this is not just a women's issue. Consultant Stephen Young, who runs a Montclair, New Jersey consulting firm called Insight Education Systems, told the Journal that he's had 34,000 employees from 62 businesses at his three-hour microinequities seminars since July 2003. Nearly half of 412 Merck employees who had participated said the experience had improved their business relationships.

With so many really big issues to worry about, why should businesses be concerned about these little slights? Mostly because smart companies know that one of their competitive advantages is the strength of their talent. "These cumulative little acts of exclusion can make an organization unsuccessful," says Brigid Moynahan, who runs a leadership consulting firm called Next Level. "People leave organizations because they dont feel valued there."

My question is: how do you deal with such snubs without making a federal case out of them — especially if they come from people higher up the organizational food chain? Is there a way to address the problem, short of walking out the door? Would love to hear suggestions.

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  • Sue Pelletier

    What I'd try to do is to turn it around--what do I need to do to develop my "wow factor"? (or whatever the slight was). Usually, I'd bet, they'd have no answer, because it's a personal preference thing, not anything based in objective reality. If they did come up with a real reason, fine, I'd work on it. If not, and it continued, I'd take it to HR. If that didn't work, I'd start looking for a new job.

    Life's too short, and "passive-aggressive control freaks" seldom change their ways--especially, as often happens, management tacitly approves their bullying by letting them get away with it indefinitely because they excel in other areas. Frankly, an organization that allows this is not one I'd want to work for.

  • david mcqueen

    What it boils down to is manners. Interpersonal Communication, talent management, diversity, or whatever other label we give it has a foundation in having self respect for yourself and for others.

    Fortunately we dont have a litigous environment as the US here in the UK, but it seems to be going that way. Discrimination on any grounds is often borne of stupidity but sometimes can be down to ignorance as well. The ethos of any given company should be realise that you are dealing with people with different backgrounds than yourself.

    I am reminded of a meeting I was in where a manager said something was like trying to find a nigger in a wood pile. Others may have wanted to sue, whereas I thought it best to ask if he knew what he actually said and the implication of it. It made him think and get on with his job, rather than being frightened into a lawsuit.

    As a black male, I realise this view might not be a majority held one. Maybe I am just more enlightened ;)

  • calenti

    In most cases it's just an occupational hazard of working for money with grownups. But in the hands of an office enforcer or a passive-aggressive control freak this (along with the 360 degree review and the happy hour innuendo) can become a devastatingly effective and almost untraceable weapon.

    Unless you have a completely self-actualized staff with independent means so they can quit whenever they want, effective employment of this can leave a staff feeling so drained and unsure of themselves it will be easier to just let this person have their way. The first task in any endeavor becomes to seek this person's validation and acceptance, before even that of the customer.

    That's when it becomes a management issue. Not when someone gets offended because they didn't get invited to play fantasy football, but when you have someone who uses this as a weapon or a way to pass off their opinions as thought leadership (which happens surprisingly often) to the detriment of the enterprise.

  • TuffNup

    Slights like these occur no matter who or what gender you are as long as you're working for someone else. Not to take a swipe at consultants -but sounds like another "problem" they've discovered that helps keep them in business.