Reader: I have a young employee of high potential who uses speech patterns, diction and expressions as well as postures and body movements typical of young women from less affluent backgrounds. She deals with customers and vendors mainly in their 40s to 60s and many important customers in their 70s and older. Establishing credibility with customers and vendors is vital to success as she takes on more responsibilities, which I very much hope to give her.
My gut feel is that her speech and physical presentation will detract substantially from her ability to make the peer-to-peer and trusted counselor relationships she will need to be successful as she advances. She’s a terrific person whom I would love to see succeed professionally, whether with our firm or others.
I’m also aware that I’m an old guy with lots of biases and assumptions and could be reading the situation incorrectly, or falling into some latent sexism (i.e., maybe it’s a “me” issue). At the same time, I don’t want to let fear of seeming biased prevent me from offering insight and development opportunities that could help her become a stronger performer.
Do I mention my observations and offer coaching or training to address the concerns now? Wait until I observe an actual vendor or customer issue? Or say nothing, let the performance be what it will and base decisions about future advancement on what results she gets “as is?”
Karla: I applaud you for wanting to avoid falling into the trap of assuming that professionalism looks, sounds, and acts just like you, or that every path to success will resemble yours. I would encourage you to keep interrogating your beliefs and assumptions.
For example, is your “gut feel” based in instinct, experience or discomfort with the unfamiliar? By “less affluent background,” do you literally mean a lack of financial resources, or is that code for something else — education, etiquette, cultural experience, accent, dialect, golfing skills, race? The more honest and specific you can be with yourself about what behaviors you find problematic and why they matter, the better you can distinguish concerns based on experience and performance from those based on assumptions and bias.
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Your letter suggests you haven’t yet seen evidence that any of these anticipated problems have occurred. If you have any way of observing her on the job or reviewing feedback from customers and vendors, I recommend starting there. It may be that she “code-switches” for different audiences more than you realize. Consider, too, that some contacts may appreciate working with someone who isn’t another cookie-cutter finishing school graduate. One person’s “unpolished” is another’s “down-to-earth.”
This doesn’t mean you should leave her to sink or swim in high-stakes situations with clients who you know have biases similar to yours, but who are less likely to see the person beyond the posture. If you have an opportunity to conduct client business yourself with such people, invite her to shadow you, and set the example you would like her to follow. If she’s as talented as you say, she’s probably a quick study at picking up on the mannerisms and diction that seem to click with your clients. And introducing her to them yourself will smooth her path by showing them that she has your trust and respect.
If you observe or receive feedback about clients reacting negatively to this employee even though her performance is satisfactory, then you have some standing to say something — but I recommend you route the message through a third party. Companies looking to groom employees for advancement often offer “executive presence” coaching to help them make a strong first impression.
Another reason for the third-party coaching suggestion: Identifying and mentoring talented junior employees is valuable, but being deeply invested in one employee’s potential to the exclusion of others can create a perception of favoritism or something less seemly, especially if it involves unsolicited coaching on personal habits and presentation. You can let the coach do that work while you root for her from the sidelines.