“It’s Me or Her” – from the NYTimes “Work Friend” column

Young marketer at work

“It’s Me or Her” – from the NYTimes “Work Friend” column

Young marketer at work

In a recent New York Times “Work Friend” column, Roxanne Gay answered a question from a woman (signed “Mei-Lin, New York”) – and her response is the biggest wake-up call to management that I’ve seen in a long time.

Mei-Lin’s question was about a situation in which her company’s client had bias issues  (calling her “too young” during the first meeting), and not liking final results that, while true, were “not flattering” to the client’s company. When the project was completed and her company continued to engage with the client on a new project – that would not involve Mei-Lin – she quit her job.

Mei-Lin’s question was “How do you think this could have been handled differently? Was quitting a job I love after five years because of this an overreaction?”

What prompted her quitting? Mei-Lin’s manager had said given her “tips on how to be less abrasive.” And, while he acknowledged that this was “a difficult client,” he told her that she had to “learn to deal with these situations better.”

The wake-up call was Roxanne’s response, which started, “Your former client was both difficult and wildly inappropriate… I have no idea why she was so persistent in remarking so rudely about your appearance and, in turn, diminishing your work and professional accomplishments.”

Roxanne goes on to say:

Ideally, your company should have done more to support you… Your supervisor’s saying you need to learn how to more effectively handle bad client behavior is a cop-out, at best. It was a less-than-subtle way of telling you that clients can pretty much get away with anything if they bring their business to your company….”   

“…Giving notice is somewhat extreme. At the same time, is it, really? You cannot put a price on your dignity and self-respect. I understand why you quit. Your sense of betrayal was, clearly, intolerable…. Hopefully, you will find a new position at a company with values that are better aligned with yours.”


Why was I surprised when I read this? Because the exact same thing happened to me when I started out my marketing career, because my voice over the phone sounded quite young. People didn’t know I was in my 30s until I met them in person – and many told me they were shocked at how much experience I had.

Did I mention this to my bosses and supervisors? Yes, of course, it was just as insulting and off-putting to me over 20 years ago as it is now. Did I quit when this happened? No, because my managers said it was my problem, just as they said it to Mei-Lin – and I believed them!

I look back on those experiences now, with new eyes, and see how much I tolerated for so many years. And know that many in the workforce – my age (in their 50s and older) – also internalized this type of “advice” from their managers.

But there’s been a sea change in what’s expected of companies now

This type of response to a client’s bad behavior won’t be “tolerated” by Millennials now. Instead, they are walking away – even from jobs they love, after five years of work.

I didn’t dare quit when I was Mei-Lin’s age because, wherever I went, it was going to be the same (and it was, until I was about 10 years older). Clients can, as Roxanne says, “pretty much get away with anything if they bring their business.”

As a manager, leader, or executive, you need to know this – if you want to retain good talent.

The times they are a’changin, as Bob Dylan sang. Or, they have changed right underneath your feet. If you want to retain talented people, this type of behavior – be it agist, racist, or any other “ist” that’s insulting or degrading – will have to be called out and changed.

This means having uncomfortable conversations with clients – the people who are driving your revenues.

Why? Because Millennials “can’t stand the thought of working for someone who chooses clients over their own employees.” Let that thought settle in for a moment.

Have questions on how to retain your Gen Z and Millennials talent? Contact me and let’s talk.

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