18 August 2022

Just Work – Kim Scott

Introduction: We Can’t Fix Problems We Refuse to Notice

Even though his intervention didn’t improve my pay or my housing, it meant a lot. He’d validated my sense of injustice. Emmett was a real lifeline. I’d routinely been awakened at 3:00 A.M . by all the thoughts and anger I’d repressed all day long: Was I the one being irrational, or were these men I was working with the irrational ones? Knowing that someone saw things the way I did helped me sleep through the night.

none of us can do our best work when being treated that way. In my next job I was able to do my best work. I created a business that was on a $100 million/year run rate within two years. I believe that better working conditions were critical to that success. If Robert had paid me fairly, had put in place the kinds of checks and balances that would have discouraged Peter and Fred’s predatory behavior, it might have been one of the best investments he ever made. This is a universe-through-a-grain-of-sand way of explaining why diverse, well-functioning teams are good for business.

Workplace injustice is actually six different problems: bias, prejudice, bullying, discrimination, verbal harassment, and physical violations.

Part One: The Root Causes of Workplace Injustice: Bias, Prejudice, and Bullying

Bias is “not meaning it.” Bias, often called unconscious bias, comes from the part of our mind that jumps to conclusions, usually without our even being aware of it. These conclusions and assumptions aren’t always wrong, but they often are, especially when they reflect stereotypes. We do not have to be the helpless victims of our brains. We can learn to slow down and question our biases. Prejudice is “meaning it.” Unfortunately, when we stop to think, we don’t always come up with the best answer, either. Sometimes we rationalize our biases and they harden into prejudices. In other words, we justify our biases rather than challenging their flawed assumptions and stereotypes. Bullying is “being mean”: the intentional, repeated use of in-group status or power to harm or humiliate others. Sometimes bullying comes with prejudice, but often it’s a more instinctive behavior. There may be no thought or ideology at all behind it. It can be a plan or just an animal instinct to dominate, to coerce.

when people’s biases are pointed out to them clearly and compassionately, they usually correct them and apologize. Prejudice, however, is a conscious and ingrained belief. People don’t change their prejudices simply because someone points them out.

What’s important is to draw a clear boundary between people’s right to believe whatever they want and their freedom to impose their prejudices on others. Bullying has to incur real consequences to be stopped.

Pointing out the pain they are inflicting doesn’t make them stop and may even encourage them to double down.

In any instance of injustice you encounter at work, you will play at least one of four different roles: person harmed, upstander, person who caused harm, or leader. Each of these roles has its own responsibilities. As you consider these roles, recognize that they are not fixed identities. Instead they are temporary parts you play. You may at different moments play all the roles.

Confrontation has obvious costs and hidden benefits; silence has hidden costs and obvious benefits.

This book will offer specific suggestions for how to do so in a way that doesn’t destroy your career; I also acknowledge there’s wisdom in choosing your battles. Choosing not to respond is a legitimate choice, and nobody, least of all me, should judge you for making it. Either way, making a conscious choice enables you to reclaim your sense of agency. Finally, if you later regret whatever decision you did make, cut yourself some slack.

You can always show solidarity with the person who is being harmed, and that acknowledgment – that “something is wrong here” – is invaluable.

Listen to what you’re being told and address it.

Creating a just working environment is about eliminating bad behavior and reinforcing collaborative, respectful behavior.

Bias often leads to prejudice, discrimination, harassment, abuse, and violence. Sometimes, recognizing your own bias can help you to confront the bias of others with more compassion.


the executive who was handed the car keys could have said, “I think you’ve confused me with the valet. I am your CEO, not your valet, here to serve, but in a different capacity.”

An “I” statement doesn’t need to be perfect; doesn’t have to be clever or witty. It can even be clumsy. The point is to say something if you decide you want to respond.

An “I” statement is a generous response to someone else’s unconscious bias. It may be more emotionally satisfying to say, “Don’t you realize what a pig you’re being when you say that?” But shaming is an ineffective strategy. When a person feels attacked or labeled (e.g., “They’re calling me a sexist/racist/homophobe/other label”), it’s much harder for the person to be open to your feedback.

If they double down or go on the attack, then you’ll know you’re dealing with prejudice or bullying.

Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad explores how our society tries to repress anger in women, but how important anger has been to galvanizing women to push for change.

There is a difference between expressing legitimate anger/annoyance/disappointment/impatience and being abusive.

The reason to confront prejudice is to draw a bright line between that person’s right to believe whatever they want and your right not to have that belief imposed upon you. Using an “It” statement is an effective way to demarcate this boundary. One type of “It” statement appeals to human decency: “It is disrespectful/cruel/et cetera to…” For example, “It is disrespectful to call a grown woman a girl.” Another references the policies or a code of conduct at your company.

What is the difference between bullying and conflict? Here’s a simple way to think about it, adapted from the work of PACER, a nonprofit that leads a bullying prevention center.

A bully is often emboldened by some sort of illegitimate status. I use the words “in-group status” (e.g., being white when the majority of leaders are white, or having a degree from a university that is particularly respected at the company), not “power,” deliberately here. When I talk about bullying, I’m talking about behavior between people who don’t have positional power over one another. Once positional power enters the equation, bullying becomes harassment. (See Part Two.)

One way to push back is to confront the person with a “You” statement, as in “What’s going on for you here?” or “You need to stop talking to me that way.” A “You” statement is a decisive action, and it can be surprisingly effective in changing the dynamic. That’s because the bully is trying to put you in a submissive role, to demand that you answer the questions to shine a scrutinizing spotlight on you.

An “I” statement invites the person to consider your perspective; an “It” statement establishes a clear boundary beyond which the other person should not go. With a “You” statement, you are talking about the bully, not yourself. People can let your statement lie or defend themselves against it, but they are playing defense rather than offense in either case.


you don’t want to expose your vulnerability to the bully, whom you cannot trust. But that doesn’t mean you can’t show your vulnerability to anyone. Vulnerability is necessary to form relationships. As Brené Brown writes, “We need to trust to be vulnerable. And we need to be vulnerable to trust.” You don’t want a bad experience with bullying to stop you from sharing with colleagues what happened and how it made you feel. Telling your story, showing vulnerability, rather than hiding from the world the harm that bullying caused, can be a much more powerful challenge to bullying behavior than the common response of ignoring it. If you ignore bullying, it’s likely to escalate.

Discrimination is what happens when people have enough power to put their bias or prejudice into action—for example, to refuse you a job or a promotion. Harassment is what happens when people have enough power to put their bullying into action. Physical violations are what happen when people have the power to touch you in a way you don’t want to be touched. Often, though not always, discrimination, harassment, and physical violations cross a line from inappropriate to illegal. You’ll want to deal with these behaviors differently from the way you deal with bias, prejudice, and bullying. We’ll cover how to deal with them in Part Two.

The pressure to be silent comes in a dizzying array of disguises, internal and external. Here are some common excuses or rationalizations

RATIONALIZATION: “IT WILL ONLY MAKE THINGS WORSE.” A common technique of bullies is to punish anyone who calls them on their behavior. So the fear of retribution is not irrational.

The more silent I am, the more angry I am, and the more angry I am, the more likely I am to be silent.

Silence in the face of bias, prejudice, or bullying is rarely a peaceful silence. I hash and rehash the event, usually at 3:00 A.M., when I should be sleeping, and finally I come up with the snappy comeback I wish I’d said. And then it happens again, but again I’m not ready with my response.

I feel even madder the next time it happens, until I become really and truly furious.

A vicious cycle of silence and rage forms. Chances are, I’m so angry that I worry any response at this point is going to feel disproportionate to whatever straw finally breaks my back. More silence, more rage. Following are some strategies for breaking free from the cycle of silence and rage.

I am always more successful when I spend my energy cultivating supporters, even imperfect ones, than when I go looking for enemies.

You don’t have to respect the prejudiced belief to respect the person; a prejudiced belief does not define the whole person.

If you’re looking at a tree, you can either experience the whole tree or you can home in on that one broken branch. If you can approach the whole person instead of this one prejudiced part of the person’s thinking, you’ll be better able to view the conversation as an act of compassion and bridge building rather than one of judgment and punishment. And when you can do that, you’ll maximize the chances of the conversation’s being productive.

the nature of bullying is to isolate the target and separate the individual from the pack.

Your ability to act as an observer of situations, and to document them, can be an invaluable service to victims of bullying—whether because they want to report an episode (and third-party evidence helps) or simply because it is comforting to get a reality check that what happened to them was wrong. An upstander can take notes on what is happening during an incident in a way that the person harmed can’t. When you see something that seems wrong, you have several options for how to respond. If you’re not sure what to do, run through the 5 Ds and choose to do something. Direct. Distract. Delegate. Delay. Document.

It can be tempting to put yourself at the center of the drama—to make the situation about you and your virtue and fearlessness in confronting bad behavior. This will cause you to lose focus on the person harmed and can even lead you to make things worse for the person you’re trying to help. An effective upstander remains attuned to what the victim of injustice wants or needs. Several “hero” behaviors can be particularly dangerous to your efforts to be an effective upstander: moral grandstanding, the Incredible Hulk, the knight in shining armor, and the opportunistic hypocrite.

If you jump on your soapbox at a dinner party subtle eyerolls will warn you to get off. But online likes pump you up. There are no subtle eyerolls online. Moral grandstanding gets rewarded with likes and shares, creating more of it and a more extremist, toxic environment.4 Which explains a lot about the state of our current political discourse. This snowball effect also explains why it’s even more important for leaders to confront bias, prejudice, and bullying when managing teams working remotely than when everyone is working together in person.

I have known few colleagues who have been able to interrupt their biases alone. Most of us need someone else to hold up a mirror.

Every generation grows up using certain words and expressions carelessly, never stopping to think about what they are actually saying and how such use of language might hurt others and reflect badly on the speaker.

I recommend explicitly asking people to be your “bias busters,” people who will be on the lookout for the things you say or do that reflect your unconscious biases. I’ll bust your first bias: don’t go out and ask people who are underrepresented to be your bias buster with no understanding of the fatigue they may already feel from having to confront daily the biases of the folks around them. People who are overrepresented often expect the people in their lives who are underrepresented to educate them and do not recognize or compensate in any way for this work or even show any appreciation for what a burden it is.

Sometimes the things you’re called on to do to make amends feel disproportionate to the thing you did wrong. Be aware that your biased comment or action may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

When pointing out someone’s bias, it’s tempting to use euphemisms or vague language (“Gosh, I feel like a jerk”) instead of clear language that shows you really do know what you did wrong (“I hate it when my mind jumps to biased conclusions. I am sorry I assumed”).

I’ve learned to follow up my apology with a question to better educate myself, something like “I’m sorry it happens all the time. Does it piss you off?” or “When else has something like that happened?

Rather than focusing on your intention, take a moment to look for the actual harm your attitude or behavior may have done. If someone is upset, what is the reason? Try to understand why rather than reject the person’s emotions.

Be careful when insisting that others “assume good intent” of you when you’ve said something biased. It can sound as if you think the person who is harmed should not be angry.

Results matter more than intentions. People respond with some heat when we’ve hurt them. That’s to be expected, not rejected. Also, telling people to “assume good intent” often ignores the cumulative pain and anger that builds up in people when they experience bias many times a day, every day of their lives, and when they feel, or are, powerless to respond to it.

Once I worked with a couple of people who objected to what they called the “word police” on the theory that they didn’t mean any harm and people should just quit being so sensitive. My boss explained to them that he did not consider himself to be the word police but that he was responsible for making sure his team worked well together. He pointed out that we all have words that make us see red when we hear them. If we are going to communicate well with one another, we must know to avoid each other’s red words. We do this because we need to be understood to collaborate effectively and because we care about and respect one another. If you’re trying to communicate with someone, why use a word that will make it almost impossible for the person to focus on the next 50 words you say? Why would you insist on using that word when it would be so much more efficient to choose another one? Admittedly, habits of speech are hard to break. Even when your team knows one another’s red words, people will still say the wrong thing from time to time. Asking for forgiveness in the service of changing a habit is reasonable; insisting that you get to use whatever word you want to no matter what is not.

The best way to make an apology is this. Go to the person in private and say, “I am sorry.” Then, shut up and listen. When you apologize to people, make sure to focus on them and understand the harm done to them, not just their feelings. Don’t make it about yourself. Here are few common “apologies” that really are not apologies at all: “I am an asshole.” Saying this focuses on you, not the person you harmed. Moreover, it implies that no change will be forthcoming.

“I was just kidding.” If your joke harmed someone, then it was a bad joke, and you’re better off apologizing for it than trying to use humor to cover up what you did wrong. Good humor reveals hidden attitudes and behaviors in a way that creates change. Bad humor reinforces harmful attitudes and behaviors. “This has been really hard for me.” Once again, it focuses on you. In this case, you are not apologizing, you are looking for sympathy, or himpathy. A VC who was accused of sexual misconduct began his apology with “The past twenty-four hours have been the darkest of my life.” An upstander, another man in tech, responded, “Are you kidding me? This is how you start? No one gives a shit about you. The only acceptable way to start this statement is with the words ‘I’m so sorry.’” Another common manifestation of this is “white women’s tears,” a phenomenon in which white women, when called out for having said a racist or racially unmindful thing, burst into tears as a strategy for avoiding accountability.18 As a white woman prone to tears, my advice here is that if you can’t help crying, make sure you remain focused on the person harmed and that everyone else does, too. Don’t let it become about you. “I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This misses the point. It shows you still don’t get that you caused any harm beyond hurting someone’s feelings. Sometimes this is a communication in bad faith, not an apology at all, as in “I’m sorry you feel I was harassing you.” What the person in this case is really saying is “I wasn’t harassing you, and if you feel I was, there’s nothing I can do about it.” “I was having a bad day.” Nobody is interested in why you did what you did. People are interested in what you’re going to do to make it right, and they want to make sure you don’t repeat the mistake. “Let me explain.” Now you are justifying, not apologizing. “Can you forgive me?” People often ask for forgiveness or demand forgiveness before they’ve taken a single step to make amends or to ensure they won’t repeat the mistake. Don’t say “Will you please forgive me?” while literally blocking the person’s path to an exit.

Too many leaders act as though creating a fair and equitable working environment is somehow separate and apart from their core job as a leader, as if their “real” job is achieving a particular metric. But more and more leaders are beginning to understand that they will have trouble getting sh*t done unless they first create a just working environment.

The score was a lagging indicator of what he was doing well or badly as a coach. He needed to back up and understand the leading indicators: behaving ethically, demanding high standards, holding people accountable, and teaching the players the right way to play.

the “fear of being seen as biased” stereotype threat can inhibit bosses from giving the feedback it’s their job to give.

Bias awareness training can be helpful in rooting out unconscious bias when it’s done well by people who understand the issues deeply and who are excellent communicators. But in practice it often feels like a sort of “check the box, CYA, protect the company from legal liability, but don’t actually try to address the underlying problem” exercise. The best unconscious bias training includes both an educator/facilitator and participation from leaders to show real commitment to change.

No training can possibly change deeply ingrained patterns of thought. Practice is key.

When it comes to interrupting bias, these are your goals:

People will only speak up if they feel safe doing so.

If you’re the leader or the most senior person in the room, the only person who should be laughed at is you.

One company I know started an initiative called “Yes, this really happened here.” People who experienced bias, and sometimes bias that had given way to discrimination or harassment, wrote their stories down and submitted them to a group of employees committed to stamping out these attitudes and behaviors. These employees selected several stories each week and shared them via email to a list of people who’d signed up to receive them.

bias is your brain serving up stereotypes you are not aware of and wouldn’t agree with if you stopped to think or became aware. Prejudice is, at some level, your conscious brain rationalizing stereotypes and biases.

Unchecked power corrupts, and we have put in place a structure that ensures none of us are corrupted by it. Nobody here has unilateral authority, and nobody is above the rules.

If you decide to fire Paul it won’t be because of his beliefs. You would be firing him for trying to impose those beliefs on others through the company intranet in a way that was disruptive and harmful to the team’s productivity. If employees were nudists, they wouldn’t be fired for their beliefs. But they would be fired if they insisted on coming to work naked or posting naked pictures on the intranet.

If you don’t keep a keen eye out for bullying behavior, you probably won’t notice it; people who bully often “kiss up and kick down.” That is why it is all the more important for your intolerance of bullying to be widely understood throughout your team. If you don’t remark on it when you are present for it, that won’t reflect well on your leadership—or on your understanding of your team and its dynamics. If you want victims and/or upstanders to inform you that bullying is taking place behind your back, you need to show them you care about it. If you ignore it when you see it, people are less likely to come to you when they need your help.

Compensation shows what a leader values. Behavior uncorrected is behavior accepted. Behavior rewarded is behavior requested. Never, ever give a raise or bonus to people who bully their peers or employees.

managers rate employees along three different dimensions: how they demonstrate company values, how they deliver on expectations of their role, and the contribution they make to the team. Employees get a separate rating for each of those areas, not just an average rating.

People stopped trying to confront his bullying behavior because not only was it working for him, it was getting rewarded. Which made more people think that they had to be like Roy to get ahead: abusive and domineering.

At several points in my career I’ve watched people make stuff up and get away with it because they project confidence and dismiss or insult anyone who challenges them.

Follow up. This is hard, but if you can email people a month after you fire them and check in to find out how they are and to offer to make any introductions they might want (as long as they haven’t behaved in a way that would make you uncomfortable doing that), it can be enormously helpful both to that person and to alleviating the distress that firing another person causes most managers

Part Two: Discrimination, Harassment, and Physical Violations

A growing body of research suggests that the more power a person has, the more likely their decision-making is to be flawed by bias and prejudice. Research also shows that bias and prejudice rather than rational decision-making often influence how resources are allocated.2 Increased power also means increased bullying when the person who has power feels insecure, incapable of controlling things, and not respected.

Having power while being focused on protecting one’s high position promotes bad behavior.

Those in power tend to depersonalize those without power.

I’ll define discrimination as excluding others from opportunities. Discrimination happens when you add power to bias or prejudice. Harassment is intimidating others in a way that creates a hostile work environment. Harassment happens when you add power to bias or bullying.

Checks and balances on power in the workplace do not eliminate abuses, but they are an excellent place to start.

If the teams you have in place are homogeneous, however, checks and balances won’t be enough to prevent discrimination and harassment, because those responsible for checking and balancing will share some of your biases.

my boss called me into his office and said that I needed to repair my relationship with Jack, a colleague on another team. Apparently my “communication style” had upset him. I asked a few clarifying questions, but my boss had a hard time articulating what, exactly, I’d done wrong. He wondered out loud if this was the competence-likability bias at play. I didn’t know what that was, and he explained that research had shown that often the more competent a woman is, the less people like her.1 I felt briefly hopeful that he might raise this possibility with Jack, might interrupt the bias, until he went on to say that, no, the problem was that I was “objectively” not likable. Ouch!

Furthermore, in spite of what my boss had said, Jack didn’t seem to have any malice toward me. I suspected my boss was trying to turn a conflict he was having with Jack into a conflict between Jack and me. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

My boss was demoting me because of a likability-competence bias? He was demoting me because it was easier than explaining to Jack why my boss wasn’t offering Jack the role he wanted? Finally, I found my voice. I objected to his “solution” to my “problem.” He countered that he had an “objective” rationale for my demotion: my two peers had PhDs, and so did a third he’d recently hired, whereas I did not. I pointed out that I didn’t have a PhD when he hired me, either. If that was a job requirement, he should’ve told me before hiring me. “Well, you’ve given me a lot to think about,” he said

I went back to my office and reached out to two of my mentors. The first one, a well-known Silicon Valley CEO, recommended I begin documenting what was happening in preparation for a legal escalation. My other mentor, also an experienced tech executive, gave me the opposite advice. “Just get another job. Quit quietly. Don’t blow up your career.” I took the latter’s advice. In retrospect, I regret it.

At the time I thought I was taking the wisest course of action, but now I understand the way that systemic injustice silences people with its promises of other, future rewards. I believe in confronting problems head-on, in a way that shows you care enough to help the person creating the problem to fix it. That is Radical Candor.

As a person harmed, I had every right to choose my battles. However, over time I came to notice that my silence hurt my self-respect and my sense of agency. For my own sake, I wish I had confronted the injustice more forcefully. Worse, my silence left other underrepresented people who were more vulnerable than I was without an ally. For other people’s sake, I also wish I had escalated the situation more effectively.

1. Document 2. Build solidarity 3. Locate the exit nearest you

Once you have oriented yourself and decided to move forward, here are four other escalation choices you may want to consider, depending on your situation: 4. Talk directly with the person who caused you harm 5. Report to HR 6. Take legal action 7. Tell your story publicly

Whenever possible, note the time and place, what was said or done and by whom, and who was present.

Another thing to think about when documenting: Which of these facts can be corroborated by others or by some sort of paper trail?

If your work computer doesn’t permit any of those things, pull out your phone and start taking pictures. Send them to someone you trust to establish what’s called a “contemporaneous record.” For example, the mentor who thought I should sue recommended that I send him an email each time these things happened, which I did. You can also establish a contemporaneous record by telling friends or trusted colleagues and then emailing confirmation of your conversation.

Asking for help is like asking someone to invest in you. And it’s the gift that keeps giving. Once someone has helped you, the person has invested in your success and is likely to help again if you need it. You’re not indebted to the person who helped you. You are, however, obligated to pay it forward.

Ask a mentor for advice on a specific decision you are making. Think through in advance how to present the decision in the most efficient way. Don’t ask the person to do your thinking for you. “I could do A or I could do B. Here are the pros and cons as I understand them. Is there another factor I should be considering?” Ask a senior colleague for help getting assigned to a different team or to include you on a high-profile project that will help you on a path to promotion. Ask a senior colleague to support your promotion. Ask for an introduction to a new job opportunity at a company where you think you’ll face less discrimination. Tell a senior colleague whom you trust about harassment you’ve experienced and ask for help in figuring out how to report it in a way that won’t harm your career.

How to ask for help from someone more senior in the organization to make sure you get proper credit for your work? The key is to ask for help from someone in your organization who is highly respected, known to have high standards, but also objective. Someone who’s known to be tough but fair. Explain what you’re working on and ask the person to meet occasionally to give you guidance on your projects and the specific roles you’re playing. This person will become your “difficulty anchor,” who will be able to testify in detail about your contribution.

When you notice someone experiencing discrimination or harassment, think about how you can help the person make an exit if it becomes necessary. Affirm the person’s perspective on what has happened. When you tell the person harmed that you notice the same things the person does, you’ve just dispelled gaslighting.

And if you can proactively offer to introduce people to someone who might give them a job, then you dramatically improve their BATNA and give them an opportunity to negotiate from a place of strength. Perhaps there are people you know who might be able to advise or help them in some other way—a lawyer, a coach. You offer a real lifeline when you make these sorts of introductions.

If you wind up suing your company or going public with your story, creating a record of your complaint and how it was handled or not handled is an essential first step. If your issue is not resolved, that record will be crucial if you decide to take further action.

reporting to HR may help others even if it doesn’t help you.

One risk of giving an honest exit interview is that you may be asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Do not allow yourself to be pressured to sign anything you don’t want to sign. Be careful with exit documents and releases. I know several people who were so eager to leave they signed and then felt muzzled for years. Remember, you are always free to walk out any door. You do not have to sign anything.

Many lawyers work on contingency, meaning they only get paid if they win a lawsuit or if there is a settlement. Because such lawyers get paid a percentage of a settlement, which often requires that you sign an NDA, they may push you to accept the settlement-and-NDA route. Be aware that some NDAs are so restrictive you’re forbidden from discussing what happened to you with anyone—even a therapist or a spouse. If you’re not going to be comfortable doing that, make your position clear and make sure that your attorney respects it.

Like many people, I was brought up being told I had to hug and kiss relatives, even ones I barely knew, at family gatherings. (...) Asking out loud is a reasonable thing to do: “Hug, handshake, fist bump, elbow bump, toe tap, or a smile?” Err on the side of caution—a smile from six feet away.