Believe people when they share their experiences
Pushback, dismissal, and excuses cause real harm.
Earlier this year, I listened to The Retrievals, a podcast from The New York Times and Serial. The series synopsis says:
Dozens of women came to a clinic at Yale for fertility treatment. All of them experienced unexpected and severe pain during a procedure called the egg retrieval. They said that their pain was not taken seriously by their health care providers, or that they were not believed.
The 5-episode podcast is about a lot of things, but one of the main themes is how women are dismissed when they voice concerns about their healthcare. I was talking with a friend a few days ago and she was telling me her own story of being ignored by her doctor. She left the appointment in tears.
On the whole, we give more weight to the opinions of people in power. Doctors have the medical degree so they must know more, right? And in a work context, CEOs must know more because they're running the company... right?
But when we dismiss experiences, people are harmed. Checks and balances are thrown out the window. We ignore the reality that sometimes people have power they shouldn't have.
People in power are given the benefit of the doubt
A few months ago, I commented that I've never worked for a CEO who was running the company successfully.
Someone replied, "I find that hard to believe. I'm not calling you a liar, but..." and wondered if my perception of what a CEO does was off.
It was unlikely that this person knew my background. I was part of an executive team, for years. I had a front-row seat for the CEO's decision-making and how the company was run. When I left and went to two subsequent employers, I knew something was off, even without being as close to the leadership team.
Did I have bad luck, being an employee of multiple poorly-run organizations? Probably. I wish it had been otherwise. But it doesn't mean my perception of the leadership teams was incorrect. One organization has been stagnant for years and two have crashed and burned.
When I was fired from a job a year ago, I kept quiet about the reason. I couldn't even say the word "fired" because it felt like I had done something wrong. I knew that would be the assumption. If I'd shared that the leadership team was wholly unqualified to run the business, who would have believed me? People would have muttered "sour grapes" or something similar. So I didn't share what happened. A few months later, more employees were harmed by the company. Completely blindsided. What if I had talked openly about my experience?
But such presumptions are rampant. The employee is wrong. Mistaken. In The Retrievals, women convinced themselves that the pain they were experiencing was normal. What else could explain the outright dismissal of their concerns?
Recently, I read something written by an employee after leaving a toxic work situation:
I tried to remind myself I'm not in management and definitely don't know how to run a business and should keep my head down and do my work well. What I should have done is trusted my gut.
We're made to believe that anyone without a "C-" in their title can't possibly be assessing the situation correctly. They're not privy to the inner workings of the company. People are gaslit into silence. They're made to feel that they are the problem. They're not believed. And it allows problems to keep festering.
The system keeps self-perpetuating
I talk to people about their work experiences a lot. I give them space to be believed.
"We can't get our jobs done because the company won't invest in tools or infrastructure. The company keeps chasing the wrong solutions. It's all talk and no action."
"I'm overworked and the response is, 'Why are you so bad at time management?'"
"I was put on a performance improvement plan. I was completely taken aback. How did we get to this point? Because I assume that if I'd not been performing well, there would have been meetings to tell me to work on something."
We're not heard. We're not believed. We try to bring issues up internally and we're ignored. Once we leave, we're told it's sour grapes. Or that things weren't as bad as we perceived.
On a mass scale, it's how we get the #MeToo movement. "This happened to me. I thought no one would believe me. So I didn't share my story." On a micro scale, it's how we got the story of The Retrievals, when a group of women was told that their experiences were unique and of no concern — when actually, dozens of women had reported the same and it was indicative of something else going on. And in the workplace, it's how bad work culture continues to go unchecked.
From the outside, we're still limited by a system that mandates professionalism. I try to step out of line when I can, but there's only so much I can do. It's not perceived pushback, it's reality. "I'm not calling you a liar, but..."
We can only try to work quietly. I share stories from people so others know they are not alone — even stories that have to be shared anonymously, for fear of repercussions. And when I see things on LinkedIn, I can slide into someone's DMs and say, "Hey, you may want to check out the Glassdoor reviews" and leave it at that.
Believe people and the stories they tell.
Special “fuck you” to the companies that have been laying people off throughout December. Layoffs are known to increase the risk of suicide by 1.3 to 3 times. And to lay people off during the holidays? Your financial situation wasn’t so dire that it couldn’t wait until January 2. Or if it was that dire, do the layoffs in November.
I made a little TikTok video, reminding people that employers will always put themselves first. It kinda blew up… you can watch it here.
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