When a Condescending Boss Condescends

I read your blog (obviously) and I would love to get your opinion on something that happens in the department in which I work – ironically Human Resources.
There are 9 people in our HR department and I am the secretary. Our Assistant Director (female many years older than me) continually calls me “Good Girl” and yes, even says it in the same tone as one would praise a pet or a child. This often occurs when I do a simple task and is therefore very condescending. 
Does this woman feel this is ok because she has children my age? (I’m in my mid-twenties) She has done this in front of our Director, who is only a few years older than me.  My coworkers all agree that it is disrespectful. I do not want employees from other departments to witness this. Should I just grin and bear it? Would it make matters worse if I politely asked her to no longer refer to me in this manner? 
I would love to hear your response. I feel frustrated and belittled every day as a result of this.
I’m feeling particularly obnoxious right now, so I might suggest barking back since she’s treating you like a dog. But, don’t do that. It would be very bad. If you do do it, capture it on video and you can become YouTube famous! But seriously, don’t do that.
Do talk to her, though. If she’s a decent human being (and we’ll assume she is) she probably has no idea that it sounds condescending and that it grates on your nerves. So, sometime when she says it to you when it’s just the two of you (no need to publicly embarrass her), say, “Jane, could you not say ‘good girl’ when I do something? I feel like a dog when you say that.” Chances are she’ll apologize.
If she doesn’t and says, “Oh, stop being so sensitive!” Reply, “Jane, I would appreciate it if you would not use that phrase. It’s demeaning.”
Then if she does it again, whether alone or in public, remind her of your conversation: “Jane, I would appreciate it if you didn’t speak to me that way.”
My guess is that the fact that HER boss is considerably younger than she is, she feels the need to assert herself as the superior person in your relationship. If a couple of gentle reminders don’t work, I would go to her boss. There’s no reason for a manager (and an HR manager at that!) to not change this type of phrase. It is condescending and super annoying.
Any other suggestions for handling this type of situation?

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19 thoughts on “When a Condescending Boss Condescends

  1. Say the only person who used to say “good girl” was her 3rd grade teacher, and it just feels weird to have her boss say it.

  2. Or along the same lines “Last time I heard that was when mom got me potty trained”.

  3. HI Susan: I’m an HR professional and I’d like to offer an additional suggestion on this situation. Love your blog by the way ;).

    Another way to manage this is for she to sit down with her and explain to her that she would like to work and learn from her experience and expertise. Have her ask her if she can give her some tips in her day to day work? Then she can bring up and say, “You know in our last discussion you stated “good girl” to me and I was kind of offended and didn’t really know what that meant?” Can you explain what that means? And then she can say I would like to work with you and learn from you but I just don’t feel the terms “good girl” used towards me are appropriate. I would have her keep the conversations with her superior positive.
    Then if this approach does not work, I agree, she should go to “her” boss and explain what has happened. She should also document everything. Perhaps mention to “her” boss not to say she specifically said anything, but to put her boss on the case to keep an eye on it and address it when she hears it to confirm. Then perhaps maybe some management and communication training? Thanks again for the wonderful blog and HR tips Susan! Deborah

  4. I don’t think I’d even have the mindset to stop and use “please.” I’d probably snap right then and there with, “I’m not a dog. Don’t talk to me like one.” in a pretty sharp tone and not caring who witnessed the exchange.

    If it persisted, I’d speak to her boss. Especially because this is HR and everyone looks to that department to set the tone. If its condoned there, other Managers (Masters?) might think its funny and start doing it too.

  5. If the woman is of the age suggested (I am assuming over 50), to this young millennial, of course she could comment privately to that person about how she feels about being addressed as a “good girl”, as long as she is willing to explain why she feels demeaned by comment.
    But I am sensing something else in this situation. This young lady is trying to impress the head of the department ( not the one she is complaining about) and feels he is ignoring her performance by his none comments. She “feels” demeaned without realizing the one running the department is this woman by direction of the head of the department ( who else to delegate Day to day tasks).
    That said, this super sensitive woman to politically correct wording should start developing a little tolerance if she wants to succeed in HR. I would think after a private conversation problem would be solved. For that other “older” women to be her position of power, she knows the job well. I just curious as to her real age as millennials tend to think anyone over 40 is old and not capable of doing things.

    1. What if the secretary was an older woman (over 50) and the offending Assistant Director was a millennial, and you had a younger woman saying “Good girl” to an older woman? Would that suddenly make it not ok? Or would you tell the older woman to “be more tolerant” of the younger woman referring to her that way? Also, at no point does she say whether the Director is a man or a woman. Why the assumption that it must be a man?

    2. I don’t agree wanting not to be condescended to makes the LW “super sensitive”; it makes her not want to be condescended to.

    3. If an African-American male were complaining about being called, “Good Boy,” would you call him “super sensitive” and lacking “tolerance”?

      1. Thanks Maria Rose for reducing this issue to stereotypes. The letter writer says “all of her coworkers” agree its disrespectful. None of their ages are indicated. But everyone agrees that it’s disrespectful. This isn’t an age thing. It’s someone in power treating a subordinate in a demeaning manner. Period.

        By the way, I am in my 40’s and work with many “young millennials” – none of whom treat me like I’m “too old” to do things. This stereotyping of millennials is getting really old. Cut it out Maria Rose!

    4. I’m of the age implied by this post. And I sincerely hope you don’t supervise anyone. You don’t talk to competent adults like they are young children (or pets.) The LW “feels” demeaned because the boss IS demeaning her, intentionally or not.

      This is not about “political correctness” or not respecting authority / failure to understand one’s proper role. The LW makes absolutely no objection to her boss assigning her tasks, etc. She simply objects to be talked to like a child.

      Just because you are in a position of authority and responsibility doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to be rude or condescending towards the people who you supervise.

  6. Spot on advice Evil HR Lady and you should absolutely follow her advice and document document document as they say in HR. I am however concerned that the HR Director has heard this woman say this and hasn’t said anything to her in private. If that’s the case then the HR Director really isn’t running the show, the perpetrator is. Still I would follow Evil HR Lady’s advice with one exception, after you tell the woman to stop referring to you in this manner, also have a private discussion with the HR Director letting him/her know that you’ve asked it to stop and ask them to ensure it does!

  7. I’m feeling obnoxious too, so the barking sounds like a fantastic idea.

    Just kidding,,, don’t do that.

    I agree that Evil HR Lady is spot on… the first time she does it after you read this, pull her aside and tell her privately that you don’t like it and that really you only talk to small children and dogs this way. After that, if she does it again, pull her aside again and remind her.

    Finally if she does it again, laugh it off and in public say “Oh HONEY, we talked about this! We agreed you wouldn’t address me in the same manner as a dog or small child.” in the most polite voice you can. I bet she never does it again.

    Last resort, head for her boss.

    As you can tell, I’m a big believer in 2nd even third chances.

  8. Great advice Suzanne! I was reading some of the previous comments and I know that at times we all want to be obnoxious, I call this the “beach ball under water syndrome.” (I think Oprah coined this phrase.) In HR we hear, see and deal with so many behaviors that are not workplace appropriate or acceptable anywhere else. The fantasy is to let the beach ball pop to the surface, so we can “bark,” make snide/witty comments or just go “what the hell were you thinking.” Sorry, I digress…..tough day. Back to subject, let’s try and apply generosity to this situation as Suzanne suggested. Maybe the Assistant Director is using the term as an endearment or maybe there is an agenda to diminish this person, but the first step in all of this is for the secretary to talk privately with her. This is my obnoxious self talking, but I get tired of all the conspiracy theories, projections or assumptions when dealing with employee conflict, PEOPLE JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER…NICELY…BE GENEROUS! Okay, I am pushing the beach ball back under the surface.

  9. We’re not getting any context of body language here, and maybe those make the “good girl” overtly demeaning.

    But I think I’d start with the assumption that she doesn’t intend it the way you’re taking it. I’ve known many people for whom “good girl” is just a speech pattern, with no real thought to it at all. Like when someone asks “how’s it going,” but doesn’t actually expect (or even want) an answer.

    So I think I’d start with a private conversation more along the lines of “You keep using the term ‘good girl’, and I’m not sure that everyone interprets that the way you mean it. Is there some other way you could phrase that?”

    But again, there’s no context of body language on a web page, and it’s impossible for me to tell the difference between her *intending* it to be demeaning as a petty dominance game, and you being far more sensitive than most people, or anything in between. Only you can judge that.

  10. Wow, I am actually surprised that someone else hasn’t said something to your boss. Can you imagine someone saying “good boy” to a younger male in the office? I definitely like the suggestion about meeting with her in private and letting her know that as a grown woman in a professional career, being called a “good girl” by one’s boss, comes across as rather weird and demeaning. You could also try saying something in the moment the next time it happens. Just cheerfully respond “just a thank you would be great” or something along those lines. She will hopefully catch the drift and try to knock it off. Unless you are referring to a pet or a toddler, “good girl” has no place in your vocab.

  11. Reminds me of my ex-manager. She was famous for abruptness, and would say “come in, sit, stay” and wave at the chair. Once I said, “do I get a biscuit now?” She was so clueless she had no idea what I was talking about. So glad she’s been shown the door and is out of my life.

    1. Ha! I was thinking along the same lines – “do I get a doggie treat now?” But, you have confirmed that such a comment would go over the head of the clueless person.

  12. Right as I (23F) clocked off I said, “may I ask you a question?”

    Of course she liked feeling like she can teach me something so she was smiley and almost excited to hear my question, so I motioned her to a vacant hallway and asked, “when you praise people, such as other employees, so you say ‘good girl or good boy?”

    She responded a little taken off guard and said, “uhm sometimes.”

    I responded, making sure I was not tilting my head from side to side and keeping an upright posture and sort of tilting my forehead toward her, “It feels infantilizing, please do not address me like that again.”

    She said okay and just stared at me…

    So I said, “I wanted to keep this short and sweet, that’s all.”

    She said, “ok,” then proceeded to walk away.

    So I said, “goodnight,” and left- I think the space was needed for both of us after that so I felt while it may seem like I put it off until last minute, it was more comfortable for everybody if we didn’t have to face each other until the next day.

    The next day she seemed more vigilant, but she did call our new trainee, “good girl” before they left for her shift, I was right in ear shot and I think it was on purpose; at least it was not me. However, if the new colleague brings it up to me that it makes her feel uncomfortable, I will be equipped with a solid script of how to address our manager to bring a stop to it completely. I work with my younger sister (20F) and she is very expressive about how that stuff makes her feel, she should be proud of that. Anyway, I hope this helps!

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