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Insensitivity vs. Oversensitivity and Good Apologies

"What's the big deal? I wouldn't have been upset by that."
--CEO

"Men and ladies…"

A financial firm was investigating lack of female representation in senior positions. During a company-wide meeting on this topic, Tom, the CEO, used the phrase "men and ladies". Someone corrected him, "you mean men and women", and Tom immediately said, "Yeah sorry, that's what I meant". Afterwards, some employees continued speaking behind the scenes about how they couldn't believe the word "ladies" had been used to describe women and how this was even further proof of the gender inequality embedded in the company culture. This in turn, spurned a backlash from others who perceived people were "oversensitive" by making a big deal of this slip, which in turn only made those who were originally upset more upset. Factions were starting to form around the incident and hard feelings were starting to mount.

The communication gap

Tom felt he had to say something to address the issue but didn't know what to say. Inside he had mixed feelings. On one hand he felt defensive and exasperated. He had said he was sorry and corrected himself. He thought, "I didn't mean anything by it. What's the big deal? I wouldn't be upset if someone had said 'gentlemen' and 'women'". Yet, the ensuing negative feelings and faction forming were a problem and damaging for the company morale.

Solution

Working with Tom we coached him to address the issue with the following apology and explanation:

In one of our meetings, I mistakenly used the phrase, "men and ladies". My use of the word "ladies" for women, when I referred to men as "men" was upsetting to many of you. I have to admit that at the time, I didn't understand why this could be so upsetting, and I continued on as if it was not a big deal. I realize now my lack of awareness of what these words implied was hurtful.

I've since reflected on what happened, and I want to make a proper apology for my mistake. Gender stereotypes have caused women to be held to different standards at work compared to men. For example, women are traditionally expected to be warm, a traditional gender stereotype of women. However, they are also needing to be tough, which is what we expect from our leaders. The problem is that these qualities are often seen as opposites. This difficulty of having to meet these greater, opposing expectations, when men do not have to, has put women at a disadvantage at work. This is precisely the issue that we've been working on as an organization. So I understand that it was upsetting and perpetuating of stereotypes when I used the word "ladies", which evokes traditional gender stereotypes, especially when used alongside the word "men", which is a word more independent of traditional stereotypes.

I'm deeply sorry for this, and also for not initially having more consideration for why this word can be upsetting. Going forward, this mistake highlights how much words can contain the implicit biases we are all trying to overcome. That I will learn to take extra care when using words referring to groups and characteristics because of the problem of not only upsetting people who have suffered but perpetuating these biases.

I know sometimes we may not understand why certain things trigger upset. Next time I say something that upsets someone, even when it may not be apparent to me why it's a big deal, I'm going to take the time to understand what it was about their experience that got triggered by what I said, and use that to increase my understanding of diverse experiences.

As we all work towards greater equality at work, we inevitably may make mistakes. I'd like to establish a culture where we allow room for mistakes, but make sure to take the time to learn from them.

Outcomes

After making a proper apology, the behind the scenes rumblings stopped. By addressing all sides of the issue and explaining in detail why

Take-Home lessons

When feelings are hurt, a hasty apology is often not enough. A proper apology is needed to build and restore trust. A good apology has the following steps:

  • Describe clearly what you are apologising for. In this case, it wasn't just the use of the phrase "men and ladies", it was for not realizing the degree of hurtfulness that could be associated with the phrase.
  • Acknowledge the impact. Often people apologize by focusing on what they did or didn't intend, e.g., "Sorry but that's not what I meant". But good apologies make sure to focus on acknowledging the impact it had on other people. Instead of saying "I didn't mean to hurt anyone", Tom focused on how his words implied the unequal gender norms that made it more difficult for women to advance at work.
  • Explain what you will do to change behaviour. Show self-reflection by explaining where you went wrong, what you learned, and how you will use your learning to improve things in the future.

Often things can be upsetting to some individuals while others don't understand why it's a big deal. This is especially true for issues around diversity, inclusion, and equality. It's important to support open discussion when individuals or groups get upset about what was done or said so that all can learn from new perspectives and individual experiences.


*Due to the sensitive nature of our case studies, names and details have been changed to be anonymous.

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