my employee’s work isn’t good — but he’s having a family crisis

A reader writes:

I manage a junior level employee who started as an intern. “Bran” was fabulous, turning in high-level work quickly and consistently, which was why we asked him to stay on when his internship ended. However, over the past three months, the quality of his work has dipped significantly. We’ve had conversations about going slower, checking his work, and really focusing on details. I have shown him specific examples of errors so that he better knows his weak spots. It isn’t working. I know he’s capable of better work–he’s repeatedly demonstrated as such.

While under other circumstances I would put an improvement plan in place, this one is a special case. Bran’s father is very ill, and is now in hospice. I don’t want to have a harsh conversation when he has so much going on at home. At the same time, I’m spending a lot of time proofing his work and fixing errors, which is affecting my own workload. We do not have an EAP. We’re a very small company without many resources. Any advice?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Applicant sent an unhinged response to rejection — and I know his reference
  • How to speak up when women are called “girls”
  • Pushing back on deadlines as a guest lecturer on a specialist tour

{ 156 comments… read them below }

  1. Falling Diphthong*

    You just know someone out there is thinking “Hey, any unhinged responses I email out are PRIVATE and not to be shared!”

    OP I would tell her. Or forward on the email, whichever you think would be more helpful.

    And of course, don’t rule out that her prominent place on his resume might come as a complete surprise to her.

    1. Meep*

      I mean depending on /how/ it is distributed, it /could/ be a copyright infringement case, but even that will unlikely get them anywhere except for having it removed via a takedown notice. Even if they are unhinged enough to try.

      1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

        It’s an email sent to a company of which the referer is an employee. If the email was going outside of the company there *might* be arguments about privacy or something along those lines (even then I’d question it), but Company sent him a rejection email, he responded to Company, and any employee of Company is fair game to see it.

    2. Jean*

      The golden rule with email is, if you wouldn’t want it presented as evidence in a public trial, don’t put it in an email. ESPECIALLY a work related email. The internet is forever, and email is designed to be archived and forwarded. It’s not a safe medium for airing out your crazy.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yeah. I’m not sure of the extent to which the applicant realises that he was “airing his crazy”!

    3. Amaranth*

      I would also let the reference know that this is not being held against her…unless it is. But my reaction to reading something unhinged from a person I recommended would be concern for their mental state, and embarrassment/concern that it might reflect back on me at work.

      1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

        Yes to telling the reference person about this applicant’s unhinged response to being turned down for a job, but NO to being concerned about “blackballing” him as an employee. This man could be very, very dangerous to ANY company that hires him – not just to YOURS!

        If that’s how he reacts to having his job application declined (which has happened to all of us), imagine how he’d react to being fired (which has also happened / will happen to all of us too!) He may indeed be desperate for a job, but any company that hires him will very likely to soon be “desperate” to get rid of him.

  2. Lucious*

    >> “While referring to adult women as “girls” may not be intended to be infantilizing or patronizing, language has power, and girls are rarely taken as seriously as women. Some of the most damaging sexism is subtle because it impacts how we think without us even realizing it”

    As a man , I’ll offer this as well- we have a duty to correct this behavior in private too. When “the boys” are meeting at an off-site (for example) and trade sexist comments , make it clear that isnt cool. If it’s a climate where treating women with respect is against the grain- consider if you should really be working with such barbarians?

    1. ArtK*

      As another man, I absolutely agree. That kind of talk is insidious and infects all interactions, not just the ones between “the boys.”

    2. Annoying Jedi Intern*

      Could be worse… could be like my organization’s executive director who frequently refers to “females” e.g. “Our efforts in gender equality is showing results: our enrollment is 60% men and 40% females.”

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        Augh. At least in the example I referred to below, the document authors used parallel terms and referred to males about as often as females – it was just overly clinical, research-y language throughout. Referring to men and females in the same sentence is egregiously bad.

  3. GingerBread*

    As far as calling women “girls”… in some contexts I’m not sure their gender needs mentioned at all. “We have a staff member(or whatever their titles is) who takes care of that”.

    1. Autumnheart*

      Right? Or “We have someone,” or “Our email developer, Jane, will handle that.”

      Nobody would say “We have a boy who codes our website” when they’re talking about a front end developer. Respect people’s expertise.

      1. Meep*

        Truth be told, I have started calling younger males in my office “kids” (in private, to my friends, of course) to offshoot some of the misogyny in the universe.

    2. generic_username*

      I agree. I use “person” as much as possible.

      I had to work really hard to unlearn “girl” as a term denoting a woman once I left college. It was particularly bad when my mom called me out for calling the 60-year-old woman who did our admin work “the girl who opens our mail.” I still have to remind myself to not call younger women girls now. Just not saying their gender makes it a lot easier to not accidentally slip

      1. rnr*

        It’s really hard to unlearn, even as a woman and feminist! It wasn’t until seeing this issue come up on this website that I really considered that “girls” is not ok when referring to grown women. It’s something I’ve really had to work on in both personal and professional contexts. I like Alison’s script because it gets the point across without being adversarial.

        1. Hlao-roo*

          I’ve found it gets easier with practice. It felt a little strange at first to say “women” instead of “girls,” especially for young adults. But no one ever batted an eye when I said (for example) “There was a woman I met in one of my college classes who…” and now “women” is the word my brain goes for first.

          1. Boof*

            I used to like “lady”, although I generally strive for gender neutral if it doesn’t get too tortuous

      2. DoubleDouble*

        I was lucky in that a professor in my first year of my journalism degree hammered home that it was not OK – pulled out all the style guides in class, noted that ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ technically referred to someone under 16, had the discussion that it was demeaning, regardless of intent, would alter the tone of your story, etc.

        The best part was that they made it very clear that, since referring to any woman over 16 as a girl was technically, factually incorrect per the style guides, it was eligible for the full ‘factual error’ penalty. We lost 5% on every typo/grammatical/spelling error, and 15% (a full letter grade) for every factual error found, including misspelling/mis-capitalizing names. They, and most of the other profs, held us to that. (Which sidenote, was a wildly tough set of grading rules as we all learned, but worth it!)

      3. Aphrodite*

        One of the things I find most irritating is when people use “man” and “person” by gender. How often do you hear “chairman” and chair person”? Or “mailman “and “mail person”? I hate it that “woman” is one syllable too many to say but “person” is not?

        AAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGHHHH! Just stop it, goddamnit.

        1. Trixie Belle*

          Ah, one in my line of work I encountered a local council member, a woman, who when she was the chair of the council, insisted on being titled “chairman” even though my organization’s style was to use the word “chair” regardless of gender. But she was milking the anti-“snowflake” vote and needed to prove how not a feminist she was all the time. Very vexing.

      4. LittleMarshmallow*

        The girl thing is interesting to me. I’m in my late 30’s. I was raised in a fairly conservative evironment (think… women belong in the kitchen), but I remember my mother ranting about how you should never call adult women girls because it was demeaning. This would’ve been in the 90’s. I wish I’d gotten to interact with her as an adult in the workforce. She passed when I was in college. I think she was a fiestier feminist than I realized when I was a kid.

      5. Koalafied*

        I think if it like a term of endearment. Meaning it’s generally fine to use it to refer to someone you have a close relationship with (as long as they don’t mind, of course!) because it’s conveying affection in a genuine relationship. But using terms of endearment with people you aren’t close to is generally condescending and insulting.

        There are no exact parallels because gender doesn’t work that way, but the closest thing to women using “girl” that I can think of for men is the term “buddy.” “My buddy at work,” is presumably more than just a co-worker, they’re also someone the speaker has affection for. But “listen, buddy -” is usually the start of a dressing-down and “ok little buddy” said to a grown man is mockery. Same word that conveys affection to a friend conveys disdain to those who aren’t friends

    3. Zona the Great*

      I once had a delivery driver push through an office full of people and walk up to me and say, “I need a girl to sign for this”. I asked if it had to be a girl as we only employee women and other adults. He, irritated, responded that no what he meant is that he needed a receptionist to sign for this. I told him he walked past about four male admins and maybe one of them could sign. And then walked away. “Girls” can be an innocuous word choice or it can be loaded and gross. My advice is to err on the side of calling all grown females Women.

        1. Chief Petty Officer Tabby*

          I still remember the one time a boss called me “girl”: I was setting files on his desk for the phone calls he had to make with pet labwork, and my back was to him. He had a puppy patient that needed an extra set of hands to hold still. I don’t remember the whole sentence, just that it ended in ‘girl’.

          I remember straightening up and looking him dead in the eye. I didn’t say a word, just gave him a thousand yard, “who the hell do you think you’re talking to?” stare, and swear to god he turned paper white, apologized, and never ever in the time I worked there called me ‘girl’ again.
          One of the other veterinarians who saw my face said it looked like I was calmly considering which type of violence I was going to choose if he didn’t fix his error posthaste.

        2. henrietta*

          Really good. “I’m sorry sir, we don’t employ children!” said with an expression which combines befuddlement and ‘wtf is your problem?’

      1. GlitsyGus*

        I once overheard a woman say in response to something very similar to “we have a girl that handles that” (I don’t remember the exact wording) with, “Really? You hired a child to do that?” I snorted, I couldn’t help it.

    4. Schmo*

      In my experience the gender is never necessary. Use their name, or their job title or something like staff member/person. I work somewhere where roles are kind of segregated by gender so it’s “I’ll go ask the girls what they think” when it could be “I’ll go ask the Intake Team”. People act like it’s complicated but I never hear them refer to the men as boys, they always get to be called by their names.

      1. Person from the Resume*

        Adult male workers are never referred to as “boy” but I do think that people use “guy” which is not infantalizing and is somewhat gendered.

        1. Persephone Mulberry*

          Sometimes I wish there was female-coded, true equivalent for “guy” – more casual than “woman” but not infantilizing like “girl” or “gal.”

          1. A Library Person*

            I suspect that the problem is both that these words don’t exist (while we have both “guy” and “dude” and even “bro”) and more that ANYTHING woman-coded will be infantilizing simply by virtue of referring to women.

          2. Boof*

            I can’t help but think of the play “guys and dolls” — of course, no, no that is not a good substitute.

        2. John Smith*

          One of our admin assistants used to refer to my exclusively male team as “boys” (as in, “hello boys, I have some mail for you”). One colleague objected to it but I just saw it as a friendly term, though in hindsight I can appreciate the objection. If is have said “Hello girls” to her team (exclusively female) I’m sure something would have been said.

        3. allathian*

          Yeah, at least not since the end of segregation. Black men have in the past been referred to as boys, although I certainly hope this practice is well and truly in the past. (I’m not in the US so I go by cultural references like movies and books.)

      2. tired of patriarchy*

        They are only referred to as boys when it’s excusing bad behavior — as in “boys will be boys!”

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          “Boys’ golf day”, “jobs for the boys”, “old boys’ network” – insidious in several ways.

        2. Your local password resetter*

          When it’s about power and prestige, women are girls and men are adults.
          When it’s about accountability and responsibilities, men are boys and women are adults.

      3. Loulou*

        Yup, I think it’s good to avoid referring to groups of people using a gendered term at work. You never know who might be made uncomfortable by it, and it just doesn’t seem necessary in the workplace. “The [x] team” is a good substitute.

      4. Jackalope*

        The one time we’ve needed it at work was when the women’s restroom wasn’t working (or was closed for some reason) and we got specific instructions that were for the women only (ie where to go instead).

      5. LittleMarshmallow*

        I like this! I feel like it would also help people with that weird thing that happens where I work where no one can tell me and our other female engineer apart… we get referred to jokingly as a weird combo of our first names as in “haha, you’re the same person because we men can’t be bothered to learn which is which”. It’s sometime comical, like the time one of our colleagues walked up to me when I was standing next to my “twin”, called me by her name and proceeded to talk to me about something that I was not involved in. She took that as an opportunity and ran away leaving me to deal with him which made it funny, but most of the time it’s annoying. People don’t do that with my male colleagues, like ever… just us. All the ladies are the same person.

    5. Dust Bunny*

      This, exactly. Unless for some weird reason the person’s gender matters, there is no reason to use it as a descriptor.

    6. Late for the Party*

      One of the news anchors in our town referred to his co-workers as “ladies” on two broadcasts this weekend. Such as “so, ladies, you will need your umbrella tomorrow” or “make sure you ladies take precautions.” It just struck me the wrong way. Same as the ED commercial where the woman says “If you or your man suffer from erectile dysfunction…..”

      1. tired of patriarchy*

        Whenever I hear or read someone use “ladies” I think of “Hey Ladies” by the Beastie Boys.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        I don’t like ‘gals’ either, and it seems like a lot of women in my office use that term! ‘We gals need to stick together,’ and ‘You need to talk to the gal who handles scheduling,’ and so on.

        1. Caliente*

          Are you in the south or Midwest? I feel like this is so regional, though I could certainly be wrong. I hate it too.

      2. kat*

        I also hate “gals” and I don’t understand why! every time I hear it, I feel like I throw up in my mouth a little.

        1. thatjillgirl*

          I also hate it, because it somehow sounds even more like the speaker is trying to be cutesy than when they say “girls.” Someone above likened it to inappropriately use of terms of endearment, and it’s definitely a related feeling for me. I do not like when strangers call me “dear,” “honey,” “sweetheart,” “darling,” etc. We don’t know each other like that, stop acting like we do! Same with “gals.” We do not have the kind of relationship where you can refer to me by such a weird, cuted-up term. It’s like it’s trying to force a familiarity or casualness that simply isn’t there.

    1. Massive Dynamic*

      Alison, would you be game to changing “girl” to “woman” whenever letter writers use the former (unless of course they mean a child)? LW6 earlier today used “girl” and it’s honestly confusing to those of us who see girls as children, not coworkers.

      1. Loulou*

        People referring to “a girl” is a pet peeve of mine, but confusing? Come on. There’s no way you thought LW6 was referring to an unrelated child they hadn’t mentioned before.

      2. pancakes*

        I don’t think it’s fair or standard within the field to edit for sexism in addition to clarity, and don’t at all agree that this particular word is confusing to those of us who don’t use it ourselves.

      3. paxfelis*

        Maybe this is judgmental of me, but I would prefer that the letters be posted as submitted. Lacking other clues such as body language and tone of voice, I’d prefer to retain word choice to try and get a fuller picture of the letter writers.

        1. pancakes*

          It isn’t illegitimate or unfairly judgmental to pick up on context about someone’s frame of mind from the language they choose to use.

        2. Quack Quack No*

          Yes, this. We can use all the information we can get, and word choices can provide a lot of information.

        3. Massive Dynamic*

          That’s a very good point; maybe it’s best to keep all word choices (save the outright offensive) the same. Although I do think that “girls” in a business context about women is moving toward the offensive direction.

          1. pancakes*

            I think it’s pretty firmly offensive in a work context and has been for some time (in my region and profession, at least), but it’s not so offensive or historically fraught that the only sensible thing to do is shield readers from seeing it.

        4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          yes, if the LW refers to the admin assistant as “the girl who answers the phone” then that’s a useful pointer to sexism, that might then inform our reading of the problem they’re writing in about.

  4. Teapot Unionist*

    For letter writer 3;

    I still remember the day my mentor and I were in a meeting with a management consultant about an issue, and the consultant said, in regards to ordering lunch, that my mentor’s “girl” could pick up our lunch, so we didn’t need to worry about it getting delivered. My mentor, himself a grey haired white man, looked the consultant in the eye, and said, “Are you referring to my colleague, Ms. Smith? She is extremely busy with her actual work assignments, but I can ask her if she has time to do us a favor.”

    The office secretary was a black woman in her 30s, so there were both race and gender dynamics at play. We were all on a first name basis, I had never heard my mentor refer to anyone by their honorific and last name. One of Anne’s favorite tasks was picking up meals, because it meant she got time out of the office and could swing through the drive through for her own favorite sweet tea on the way back, and meal pick ups were, indeed part of her job descriptions, but my mentor would never allow someone to treat her with such contempt.

    It was a delightful moment to watch, and I learned a lot about how to handle such things when they came up in the future.

    1. Ashley*

      Kudos to him!
      It is such a common thing that so many don’t think it a big deal even when you explain it. My favorite was when someone suggested we call all the men ‘boys’. I pointed out that is opening a racial can of worms for a few employees and they should really rethink that policy.

    2. Not a cat*

      I worked for a startup where the 3 admins flatly refused to order or pick up meals. They felt it was demeaning. So, they’d send me, the VP of Marketing or the CFO. I’m all for respect and not demeaning staff, but those errands cost the company a lot of money.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, that also seems a bit odd. But startups are weird, I guess.

        That said, I’ve never worked anywhere that it would’ve been okay to ask someone else to get your lunch for you.

  5. AthenaC*

    OP#1 – I would really love an update to this, and hoping it worked out. I’ve been in too many professional situations where giving people grace really burns me so I’m eager to collect counter examples.

    OP#3 – I often have to stop myself from referring to men who are younger than me as “kids.” I don’t seem to instinctively reach for any infantilizing terms for women, but for men I seem to. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

    1. Fresh Cut Grass*

      Alternatively, I would be tempted to try to train yourself to refer to any group of people, regardless of age, as kids, which I personally would find enjoyably whimsical.

      1. LittleMarshmallow*

        I frequently refer to groups as “kids”… like I walk in and say “how’s it going, kids”… the people are almost always older than me. I’ve only run into it as an issue once where someone was offended by it. She told me (which I appreciated) and now I do try not to refer to groups that are definitely younger than or subordinate to me as kids, but I also find it whimsical for more generic equal or older groups. That said… I’m generally carefully about my word choices in groups that I’m not familiar with. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable but I do like being able to be silly and a little more informal sometimes if the situation allows.

  6. Oh well….*

    Honestly, as someone who just had a parent in hospice and pass away, I commend Bran for even showing up to work. The best thing you can give that employee is paid time off, and the time to grieve as needed. In my moms hospice the staff talked a lot about anticipatory grief (which doesn’t seem to cancel out the grief after the loved one passes), and that is can just as if not more cripingly as the grief you feel after the person passes.

    1. rnr*

      I’m sorry for your loss. I dealt with this several years ago with my dad, and that was my experience as well. I technically showed up to work, but I didn’t have a single f*ck to give. Giving Bran enough time off, or reduced hours/reduced workload would probably go a long way towards fixing this issue.

    2. Gem*

      #1 really shows the need we have for paid family leave. My heart aches for that employee. I know it’s hard as the employer too, but especially where this employee has done well in the past, it seems like he he really just needs some time off.

      1. Oh well….*

        Yes, it completely demonstrates the need for paid leave. I think most people think of paid leave being about when someone goes on maternity leave, but it’s also desperately needed when you are dealing with immediate family members who are dying. Because quite frankly, I think it would be easier for everyone involved.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      As someone who was in that same situation 9 years ago, I can add that, besides the grief (both mine and my family members’ that I had to be there for and offer my support), my phone was ringing off the hook. If it wasn’t about me needing to come in to sign something, it was me needing to give permission for something over the phone. I am an only child and mom’s English is not great, so all admin-type work came to me. I had to answer my phone anytime it rang, because I never knew what it would be about (could’ve been anything up to and including THE bad news – although that ended up happening late at night). I believe I told my teammates and managers at work that I would be tied up in that way and why, and of course everyone was extremely understanding. It was a really difficult time. Oh and then I had to talk to the funeral home and organize the funeral, then get all of dad’s things in order (social security, bank account, clear out his section 8 apartment and so on). Thankfully, my mom was the one that called all the relatives to tell them of his passing. I couldn’t have done it on top of everything else. Speaking of the term “adulting”, I felt like that was the only time in my life that can really be called that. It was so hard.

      To the commenters that shared similar experiences, I am sorry for everyone’s loss.

      1. Oh well….*

        I am an only child. My parents are divorced. I echo my phone ringing off the hook with questions and updates not only from various medical professionals, but also from extended family and other people wanting “updates”. And, even now several months later I’m dealing with liquidating her estate (which involves probate and a judge). Honestly, if I could have had a few months paid leave I think everyone would have been better off. Because especially when my mom was actually dying, i was useless, and even now I’m not where I should be.

    4. Fresh Cut Grass*

      I was the opposite when losing my mom– I’m young enough that my dad was able to handle most of the care, but I took half of the day as “my shift” on hospice duty. My manager tried to let me know I could take time if I wanted to, but I was desperate to have the normalcy and distraction that came with work! (But I also did fairly mindless work at that job.)

  7. Lirael*

    Thank you so much for 3, Alison. I’m just as guilty of it and I want to do better going forwards. (I’m a woman, fwiw)

  8. retired2*

    I totally agree with the comments on not using “girls,” but as a person who listens to Irish rebel music, it’s always “the boys,” As in the “the boys who died in Dublin in 1916” whose names are well known. Just an amusement for me.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      I mean to be fair, a lot of frontline soldiers ARE boys — I still consider 18/19 young enough to be a kid.

      1. Alice*

        If you are old enough for your countries’ polit-aholes to send you to fight in their war then you deserve to be called a man or woman.

        1. Anononon*

          I think that’s basically the argument that Gerry is making. They shouldn’t be considered old enough!

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          I remember a memorial for those who died in WW1 in the north of France, listing the names and dates of birth and death of all soldiers who died there. The youngest, a German soldier, was only 14 (he’d lied to be able to go with his older brothers).

          1. Despachito*

            Now you made me think of the beautiful, sad song “The Green Fields of France”:

            “And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
            in some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
            and though you died back in 1916
            to that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen…”

    2. Beth*

      For me, the general feeling in that genre of music is that we’re taking the POV of the mothers. The boys in question are dead, amd mostly died young, leaving older relatives behind to write songs about them.

  9. HotSauce*

    When I gently remind my coworkers to use women, ladies, or people I always get a big eye roll. I like Alison’s response
    of if it’s not a big deal it shouldn’t be difficult to make a change and I am definitely using that going forward.

  10. Dust Bunny*

    “If you’re told you’re making too big a deal out of it, you can say, “If it’s not a big deal, it won’t be a problem to use ‘woman,’ right? Thanks.”

    See, the more people try to soft-pedal calling this out the more it gives the impression that it’s not a big deal. Treat it like the not-inconsiderable offense that it is. Embarrass somebody. Yeah, I know they’re nice and they didn’t mean it like that, but it’s almost 2022 and well past time for them to be shocked out of this habit.

  11. Critical Roll*

    Anyone trying to unlearn using “girls” should watch Drag Race. You will never not hear RuPaul’s voice saying, “Bring back… my girls” every time you start to use the term.

  12. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

    To all the people who know their work performance is dropping due to personal circumstances fully beyond your control but you still need the job/money as a distraction/to keep afloat, if a manager asks you for solutions until the circumstances clear up, including reduced hours, believe them and take them up on it. Make fair and reasonable suggestions.

    Managers, offer this more often. Show some compassion. Find solutions.

    I’ve worked at SO many places where part-time work was Just Not Done, nor would it be readily offered or accepted as a plan. I know a woman who had to push hard for a 4-day week while her daughter was in therapy. The cut in pay was hard but her child was worth it.

    So many people in my past jobs where a part-time arrangement or work from home possibilities would have relieved a lot of stress, and not have dinged productivity so much.

    1. anonymous73*

      This. OP says the company is small, but as a manager you need to have contingency plans in place. Someone could become ill, need surgery or have personal emergency and not be in the office for days/weeks/months. People need compassion and understanding in a situation like this and I hope OP was able to work this out with him. I lost my mom suddenly in 2009 after being in my job for only 6 months and my manager and team were all kinds of supportive. For me working was a distraction, but if I had needed more time off, my manager would have been more than willing to allow it.

    2. lost academic*

      My current company is doing just this as I feel like I am drowning for several months now with kid health issues (nothing all that out of the ordinary but perfect storm toddler illnesses plus COVID daycare hours and procedures makes for maybe half capacity at best in a billable hours environment). They are a MASTER CLASS in how you run a multinational firm with humanity.

    3. WellRed*

      Yes! Yes! Yes! If you are struggling, take the time. I Know that’s not always possible but you should give yourself permission to try. Mgt: if you know someone in this situation offer the flipping time off. This isn’t rocket science. Make it work.

  13. Guacamole Bob*

    I recently corrected someone who used “female” frequently in a document. It was about research on our customers: females are more likely to do X, males to do Y according to survey data, and that sort of thing. But ugh, the visceral response I have to seeing “female” as a noun outside of a clinical or legal context.

    Probably “girls” is still worse, though.

    Just use “women”.

    1. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

      OMG – I’m NOT ALONE! I hate the use of “Female” outside of biology or legal context too!

      I’m a woman! I work with women, not females. We’re not lab rats! Or in a zoo!

      My friends eye roll at me when I complain about “female.” I’m so glad I’m not the only one!!!

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        I can tolerate it as an adjective” “female survey respondents were more likely than male respondents to say…”. But as a noun it comes across as either very cold and clinical, or creepy and dehumanizing like you’re an incel on an internet forum, depending on the context.

          1. allathian*

            Yup, I feel the same way.

            If a man uses female as a noun, I always suspect him of having Ferengi attitudes about women and our role in society. Girl, when referring to adult women, is often infantilizing, but female as a noun sounds dehumanizing. I think it’s okay to use as an option in surveys, IDs, etc., or in a clinical context, but when referring to an adult woman, saying woman is much better.

      2. wendelenn*

        Agreed. Female is an adjective, not a noun. I am a female librarian. I am not “a female”.

        Woman/women is better.

        1. Loulou*

          I know someone who really didn’t like female even as an adjective, and said “woman librarian,” etc. That sounds soooo old school to me, but I guess “female” also has sort of biological connotations. It doesn’t come up too often, though.

          1. Gracely*

            Haaaate female as a noun; it’s extremely grating. I’m fine with female as an adjective, and frankly would prefer it instead of “woman librarian”.

            Woman is a NOUN. Not an adjective! I loathe and despise its use as a qualifier for professions, especially. She’s an astronaut. Not a woman astronaut. She’s a doctor. Not a woman doctor. Etc.

            1. Jg291*

              My biggest pet peeve in the world is when “woman” is used as an adjective, like to talk about your “woman doctor”. Would you ever say “man doctor”!!!!! You would not. Thank you, kindred spirit!

            2. thatjillgirl*

              Yeah “woman [profession]” just sounds a weirdly sexist. Nobody goes around saying “man librarian,” “man astronaut,” “man doctor,” etc.

    2. Beth*

      One of the other web columns I follow is Dr. Nerdlove, who regularly does smackdowns on guys who refer to women as “females”. Sample snip:

      Q: “When seeking out a female is inadvisable (jobless, insecure, whatever) or impossible, or just god damn difficult [. . .]”

      A: “Well to start with, you can quit referring to women as “females”. There’s nothing as creepily off-putting as dehumanizing an entire gender.”

      He usually posts a screen cap of a Ferengi to go along with this.

    3. WantonSeedStitch*

      Every time someone refers to “females” when talking about women, I always envision the speaker/writer as a Ferengi from Star Trek!

    4. Worker bee*

      I loathe the term “female” unless it’s being used in a clinical way with the term “male”. I get furious when I hear “men” and “females”. I once had a 20ish male coworker whose ego had been stroked a bit too much by management who I heard say, “You females (women coworkers his age) need to start respecting my male authority.” He was trying to be cocky while no one in authority was listening, but I had walked up to him saying that and, even though I had no authority, I had 5 years experience and nearly 20 years of life on him, I read him the riot act and told our manager.

      My coworker, and our manager was/are black. My coworker didn’t get why I was offended, but my manager got it when I asked how he’d feel if I started calling both of them “boy”.

      I understand it’s not at all the same thing, but it was the best I could come up with in the moment.

    5. londonedit*

      I always hear the voice of Martin Goodman from Friday Night Dinner (may he rest in peace). Any…*females*…?

    6. Very Social*

      YES. Female is an adjective. Woman is a noun! (Use of “woman” as an adjective bothers me, too.)

    7. Boof*

      I mean… if they are at least also using males as a term I’m kind of eh, whatever, they’re probably trying to sound clinical. If it’s like, people vs females, or men vs females, then yes, it is weird.

  14. Beth*

    The managing partners at my company are all white men who are younger than I am. I have been known to refer to them as “the boys” when they collectively do things that make me roll my eyes . . . but only when speaking confidentially to someone else.

  15. anonymous73*

    I hope things worked out well with Brian, given he was an excellent employee prior to his father becoming ill. Managers need to have plans in place for sudden absences, even more so in a smaller company. Life happens and employees need time off for emergencies. They’re also human, so when someone is going through a rough time like this, grace and compassion are needed.

  16. Wisteria*

    Before LW4 pushes back on the additional asks, I would do a little research on other tours that the company offers and see what kinds of blurbs exist for those tours and whether there is a byline (ie, can you tell who wrote the copy?). I would also check her contract, if there is one. If writing these summaries is expected of all expert speakers, asking for additional recompense is not going to go over well.
    LW, weigh just how much the opportunity to do research and see friends at minimal cost to yourself means to you. It kind of sounds to me like you had an expectation of the work load that was not aligned with what the tour company’s expectation was, and as a result, you are now overcommitted. Instead of asking for more money, ask more details regarding their expectations and timelines, if there is a severe mismatch with your availability, it might be best to bow out.

    1. Eleanor Shellstrop*

      Yeah, this is what I was thinking too. I used to work for a company that did this exact kind of expert-led tour, and the expectation for the lecturer to write blurbs on the destinations themselves seems a little out of place to me, although it seems more reasonable for them to write summaries of the lectures.

      But honestly, if guests are going on this trip because of their interest in the destination and the subject on which the lecturer is an expert, they probably aren’t going to need a full summary of the talk beforehand, just a general idea of the topic should be fine.

  17. autumnal*

    Stories of girls and boys
    I was in my mid-20s when a man who worked in an adjacent office referred to a group of women I was a part of as “girls.” I said, “I haven’t been a girl since I was 12, so please don’t call me that now.” I’m proud of that moment to this day and I’m now 60. I was a lowly work-study student and he was some higher-up but I’d also worked as a paramedic and was used to standing up for myself. Plus I’m just cheeky.

    I attended HS in Flint MI. In science class, we formed small groups for a project and I said something about “girls and boys.” An African-American young man in our group firmly let me know that he was NOT a “boy.” I learned a very, very important lesson about language and labels that day. When I look back on that moment, I admire him for standing up for himself and his fellow classmates.

  18. nah*

    My favorite response to references to girls at work is usually a deadpan, “oh, I wasn’t aware (company name) employs child labor.” No one has argued the point further.

  19. Cheap Ass Rolex*

    I’ve realized my main side note / take on the “Girls” thing is: Don’t police women in their 20’s on this as hard as you police men, especially older men.

    It seems like a lot of the focus is on chastising younger women for being used to using a pretty standard social term – girls for their female friends and guys for their male friends. It’s fine to remind them especially in the workplace to learn to make the switch to saying women, but when you’re just out of college and it’s much more natural to say girls, you don’t really need some big lecture about how you’re infantilizing your friends. Girls in the context of social relationships between young adults just has a different connotation, whatever the denotation may be.

    Basically, this switch exists to stop men from condescending to women, but between young adults, it’s more of a grey area (depending regionally on how common the Girls thing is; where I’m from “Gals” feels super forced and it’s bizarre to say “Some of the women and I are heading up to a cabin for the weekend!”)
    I just wish people would focus more attention on the actual point of this linguistic agenda, and less on treating all instances of it as equally insidious when they’re just not.

    (This doesn’t 100% relate to this particular letter; I just finally realized why the Girls discourse had seemed “off” to me for years.)

    1. pancakes*

      Of course it’s more of a grey area, but no one is recommending “some big lecture.” That wouldn’t be helpful in getting obtuse older men to stop using it, either. If the discourse you’re seeing is recommending it anyhow, it’s time to find new and more nuanced perspectives.

    2. PT*

      I worked with senior citizens and it is also not a battle to fight. Let the group name itself, respect the group’s choice.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yeah, they’re allowed to define themselves. And honestly, we can give them a break. There’s a British comedian, Romesh Ranganathan, of Sri-Lankan heritage, who says that he truly doesn’t mind if an elderly person calls him a “darkie”. He would never take it from someone his own age, but said that the elderly already have enough problems and can’t still be expected to live with the times.

      2. Mannequin*


        I would never have dreamed of questioning my mother, aunt, or grandmother for referring to theire (and my!) platonic female friends as their ‘girlfriends’ til the ends of their lives.

    3. Tali*

      Yes I agree, I think often people take these linguistic changes that are designed to combat bias in formal or professional contexts and primarily advocate for their acceptance in casual or social contexts, where the stakes are lower and implementation is easier. The goal is to stop the condescension towards women, not to banish the word “girl” from a young woman’s description of herself and her friends.

      1. Despachito*

        “The goal is to stop the condescension towards women.”

        Absolutely this, and as always, it is all about CONTEXT.

        My ninety-year-old aunt regularly meets with her few remaining schoolmates from eighty years ago. She would always say “I am going to see the girls”, and I do not find it condescending one little tiny bit. It is rather endearing, because it is obvious they still see each other as the girl they had been decades ago.

        Also, I attend language lessons with a group of people ranging from their late thirties to seventies. Our teacher is somewhere in the middle, and he would call all of us the equivalent of “boys” and “girls”. Again, it is not condescending at all, it rather feels that I am back in school again, in the pleasant way. And he acts absolutely respectfully in everything, this is just his “tongue-in-cheek” towards us and I love it.

        I can imagine very well though how I would hate it in one of the contexts you are describing, and very well worth pushing back, because I do feel the condescension in “the girls will make us coffee”.

        So I would not be fan of banning it altogether, but just when it really means the condescension (and an utter tone-deafness, because I think a normally functioning adult should be able to tell in what context it is appropriate and in what it isn’t).

        1. pancakes*

          When people use it in a scenario like your language lesson, with a group of men and women approaching middle age and up, they’re nearly always doing so in a winking, humorous way, and purposefully rather than unthinkingly reflecting bias or condescension. I don’t know anyone so militant about language as to want to eradicate that usage. Likewise elderly people being playful about their age group or nostalgic for their younger years.

          1. Despachito*


            I think we are on the same page. I just wanted to point out that it would not be wise to want to eradicate it overall, just in the truly condescending context (and there I also agree with the commentariat that it needs to be done).

  20. jm*

    LW 1, you said you don’t have an eap, but would it be possible to look up low cost therapy or support groups for the family of terminally ill patients?

  21. ALM2019*

    Does “gals” or “gal” have the same connotation as girls in a professional setting? I (a woman in my 30’s) have a male coworker in his late 50’s who uses it all the time. Something about it gives me bad vibes every time but I can’t quite figure out how to address it.

    1. Stevie*

      I’d say that it’s probably not great, given the context you described. It seems less loaded than “girl”, but also somehow a term that seems to indicate, “HEY, I AM REFERRING TO A FEMALE AND I NEED YOU TO KNOW THAT SHE IS A FEMALE”, rather than, “I’m describing a person who identifies as a woman, and that is incidental to the context in which I’m referring to this person.”

      Still, I think there’s a cultural/regional element to this in the U.S., as I’m now imagining specific people I’ve interacted with at my last job who definitely said “gal”.

    2. Critical Roll*

      It’s less infantilizing but still feels pretty patronizing. The emphasis on gender is just really unnecessary. I don’t have data on how often women at work are referred to exclusively by their gender (the gal at the front desk) versus how often it happens to men (the… dude? at the front desk) but it seems incredibly disproportionate, and I had to think to come up with that slightly awkward analogous term. Choosing that term selects gender as the piece of information you feel is a primary identifier, as opposed to their work title or, you know, NAME.

      1. Martha*

        Yes, I would say “go ask the guy at the front desk” just like I would say “go ask the lady in the red vest” because I am trying to point out a specific person. Don’t always know everyone’s name, but you know that they do [whatever] job.

  22. Suzy Q*

    It infuriates me when women are referred to as “girls,” as much as when groups of multiple genders are referred to as “guys.”

  23. raida7*

    I’d suggest changing him to working part-time. Even if it’s half days five days a week, so he doesn’t feel like he’s away from his Dad for long stretches, and only needs to (try to) focus for 3-4 hours at a time

  24. raida7*

    “girls” – Everywhere I’ve worked that’s referred to women as girls has also referred to men as boys.
    At fast food when I was a teenager there were a few people who’d use ‘guys’ and ‘chicks’.

    But as long as it’s used evenly with both genders – and accurately! – it doesn’t bother me.
    If ‘the ladies’ are arranging morning tea and it’s actually not only women I will tell the manager it’d be more accurate to say “we’ve got people from Procurement, Risk and Planning” arranging morning tea. Because the fellas aren’t going to want to be ignored for their efforts and you also don’t want to suggest that of course the morning tea is planned by women.

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