Do You Act Like A "Jerk" Without Knowing It?
The Complete Lawyer
I first met Lola at a women lawyers' leadership event. An African American Ivy League graduate, she had recently been recruited from the federal government to a large firm and accepted the offer in order to hone her expertise in international corporate transactions. As a newcomer to the firm, she arranged to meet with every partner in her area in order to learn about their practices and seek out good work assignments. Each time she asked a partner for work, however, she was referred back to the assigning partner, from whom she received assignments that primarily involved document management and administrative tasks. To several partners she explained that, as a senior associate, she needed more substantive projects in order to further develop her skills and advance in the firm. But each time she was told that the assignment system had been developed in order to ensure equitable work distribution and that she needed to work within that system. She was equally frustrated by her first project at the firm. The work had come from a partner at another office and he'd asked a male counsel there to supervise her. However, the counsel would not take or return her calls. When he sent emails to everyone working on the project, her name was omitted, keeping her out of the loop. When she was finally able to speak to the partner about the situation, he took her off the project.
Lola's story reached its climax at her annual review. Every partner contributing to Lola's review commented that her analytical and substantive skills were not at the level they'd expect from a senior associate. Furthermore, because most of the work she'd done for them had been administrative, they believed they did not have sufficient evidence of her substantive work abilities to support her promotion to partnership.
Never having directly received any negative feedback on her work prior to the evaluation, Lola was stunned to hear that one partner had given her a scathing review on a writing assignment-one he had delegated to her at the last minute and which she had completed without sufficient time or any opportunity to confer with the partner.
Jerks Set You Up To Fail
I encouraged Lola to speak to the partner in charge of career development for her practice group about her difficulty obtaining career-building assignments. He told her that although the firm had a formal assignment system, in practice, the firm operated on a free market system. The poor quality of her assignments reflected her failure to successfully market herself to the right partners.
She also told the career-development partner how confused she was by the negative comments about her writing. He told her that understanding partner feedback was often a matter of making the "right interpretation"-a heavily-edited document might suggest a negative evaluation of skills, as could receiving very little feedback from a partner. He explained that some partners were better than others at communicating their perceptions of work quality and that he was sorry she'd been surprised by the evaluation.
Lola was a victim of a particular kind of "jerk" behavior called being set up to fail. Neither the partners nor the assignment system provided the kind of work she needed but she was criticized for failing to do more sophisticated work and for having sub-standard skills.
Would any of the partners involved in this situation identify with the typical description of "a jerk"? I seriously doubt it. There were no screamers who drove Lola out of the firm. No one had behaved in any actionable discriminatory way.
Microinequities Are Subtle Forms Of Discrimination
Did Lola believe that race and gender had influenced her situation? Absolutely. She did not imagine that the treatment she'd received had been motivated by conscious bias. But as an African American woman attorney, these behaviors were all too familiar, a few more in a long string of slights and indignities she'd experienced much of her life and throughout her legal career.
In the business world, these subtle forms of discrimination are called "microinequities."1 Psychologists refer to them as "microaggressions."2 Mary P. Rowe, the first author to study this almost invisible form of bias, defined microinequities as:
"...apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator. Micro-inequities occur wherever people are perceived to be "different:...African-Americans in a white firm; women in a traditionally male environment...These mechanisms of prejudice against persons of difference are usually small in nature, but not trivial in effect. They are especially powerful taken together. Micro-inequities work both by excluding the person of difference and by making that person less self-confident and less productive."3
Our typical image of a "jerk" is someone outspoken and arrogant. Rarely do we think of the individual who fails to say what is necessary, or the one who operates on "automatic pilot" without being self-reflective about the potential role of prejudice in decisions like work assignments or evaluations. I'm sure that any suggestion of racial or gender bias would be very offensive to, and vehemently denied by, the partners who sent Lola back to the assigning partner. And, if as you read Lola's story, you wondered whether she was playing the "race card" in order to cover for skill deficits, you may be vulnerable to acting like a "jerk" without realizing it as well.