It has come to my attention from my white colleagues that they are sometimes fearful of providing us with honest and valuable feedback. When i heard this I did a double take. I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. So I perked up and listened to how these women I respect were feeling. I care about how we are perceived and I care about the angst that our white colleagues feel around these topics.
When I asked what the problem was, they indicated that there is a fear of giving constructive criticism that goes beyond the actual work and productivity because it may be construed as racist or insensitive. What the hek can you be commenting on that would be considered racist or insensitive?
Sometimes we Latinas start at and stay in entry level positions. The reality – still – is that Latinas are often part of the housekeeping and maintenance crews or clerical/administrative staff. If this is not the last stop for us, we are probably working with a deficit. These jobs require less education and are not often privvy to professional development opportunities. How many of the receptionists or administrative assistants in your offices attend week-long conferences?
When the time comes for a promotional opportunity, these valuable employees are overlooked because of dress, habits, language and vocabulary. The lack of exposure to upper level assignments and projects don’t present themselves, creating a negative cycle. They do not get the training they need and now, after what I am hearing, never get the nitty gritty feedback that will allow them to move up to better jobs with higher pay.
White supervisors who recognize these missteps are worried that Latina and African American staff will feel targeted. If it were not for the feedback I have received over the years I would not be successful. I would still be sending poorly-toned emails, wearing jeans to work or who knows what else.
Dress. According to scientific research, a first impression is 55% appearance. Think about it. Before you even open your mouth, people have made up their minds about who you are based on how you look. And they did this in just a few seconds. This means makeup or no makeup; slacks or jeans; cleavage or leg…you get the gist…is defining who you are. If your place of business does not have a formal dress code, that doesn’t mean you take the lack of policy for granted. This is one area that your supervisor may find it difficult to give feedback. When you can’t point to policies, feedback about your attire may feel like a personal attack – and that is where supervisors start to worry about how feedback will be interpreted. Side note: Did you know that women who wear makeup are paid 30% more? Appearance is everything!
Language and Vocabulary. The same study finds that 35% of impressions are based on tone – not just what you say, but how you say it. Are you saying “ax” instead of ask? Are you saying brang or brung instead of brought? Are you calling your boss “gurrrl?” And the kiss of death, do you curse at work? Your language and vocabulary skills (or lack there of) may be a barrier to promotion, but also a barrier to feedback. If you are doing any of these things, you need to stop. And if your boss hasn’t brought it up, he or she may be worried about your reaction. Sounding intelligent is just as important as being intelligent. Oh, and careful with the slang. In higher education, we often have to communicate with a number of constituencies and each of them require very different approaches. Slang has its place. Just make sure you know when to make the distinction.
Content. Guess what the last 10% of a first impression is about? The content of your words – the proof that there is an intelligent woman behind the appearance and tone. This is hard to swallow but it’s important for us to be aware of these societal norms so that we are armed with information to navigate the workplace.
Make no mistake. If these characteristics – dress, tone, content – are not in sync, the potential for you to move up in your place of work will be challenging. Do you ever wonder why the least qualified person in the office, who was also hired after you, got the promotion? Analyze their dress and their tone. Even if your experience and content is superior, your appearance and tone may be holding you back.
As women we need to look out for each other and find opportunities to advise colleagues about potential missteps. A colleague that you have a relationship with should be hearing about her inappropriate behavior or dress from you, as a friend, than from her boss. Clue your “gurrrl” in, so that she doesn’t find herself in a dead end job.
The issue is about professionalism in spite of policy or union affiliation. There is a way to “act” and “look” that doesn’t betray your sense of self. So even though your tight jeans and cleavage may not get you fired, they won’t get you promoted either! Being defensive about constructive criticism or playing the race card inappropriately is also no way to get ahead. Feedback is crucial to your professional development and growth. Learn strategies for taking the critiques personally without taking them personally.
Other relevant articles: