Respectful Management of Difference at Work

Have you ever had something happen to you at work that made you so upset you burst into tears?

The likelihood of you answering yes to that question is directly related to whether you check the male or female box on a census form. Without getting too caught up in the whole Women Are from Venus and Men are from Mars debate, past the age of 12, before which crying is still a gender neutral activity, women tend to cry more than men. While both men and women get angry, discouraged and frustrated, they tend to express those emotions differently. Men may yell, and scream or punch the wall. Women cry.

According to Martha Stewart, crying at work is a career limiting move. As she told one of the women on the losing team on The Apprentice some years back “Cry and you are out of here. Women in business don’t cry, my dear.”

Why not? Well the simple answer is because men don’t. Crying is a behaviour associated with women. It has come to represent stereotypical feminine traits like weakness. If you cry, it means that you are weak. Weakness is not generally a desirable character trait in the corporate world.

The problem with the idea expressed by Ms. Stewart is that is flows from a discriminatory and disrespectful paradigm. The sub text is that it is ok to be a woman in business, as long as you act like a man. It propagates the idea that there is one model, one ideal, one way for individuals in business to be, and that way is tied to the historical habits and behaviours of one particular group.

This is antithetical to the idea of workplace diversity. Diversity is not about having individuals that look different but feel pressured to suppress their individuality to conform to the behaviour of a dominant group. It is about creating a workplace culture that encourages and supports individual differences within an employee group. It is about the respectful management of difference, and that implies that we are curious about our differences and willing to risk talking about them openly.

We humans are emotional creatures. It is neither realistic nor desirable for us to try and disengage that aspect of our humanity in the workplace. No matter where we work, or what type of work we do, chances are we will get emotional at some point in our working life. When this happens some of us may yell, scream, punch the wall or cry.

Which of those behaviours are appropriate in a working environment? Possibly none. However, the criteria upon which we decide which are or aren’t should be based upon what is professional and respectful in a workplace, irrespective of gender associations.

If we are interested in building truly respectful workplaces, which by definition embrace diversity, or what I refer to as the respectful management of difference; we have to talk about our emotions in the context of our workplaces. We should talk about the different ways our emotions may manifest at work, and clarify the appropriate ways to express them. We should be supported and coached so that when we do experience stressful and/or emotional situations at work, we know how to deal with them in a professional and respectful manner.

At the end of the day, depending on the reality of our particular workplaces, we may decide that it is ok to cry at work, on occasion. We may conclude that, contrary to what some people think, big girls, and sometimes even big boys at work do cry, and that is ok.

How about we replace assumptions with curiosity? I say it’s time to get the conversation started.

What do you think?