Exploring the ‘Karen’ Stereotype at Work

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales May 31, 2023

​Uber recently received criticism from its employees of color after the organization's head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) hosted two "Don't Call Me Karen" seminars to discuss the experiences white female employees have had with the widespread stereotype.

The ride-hailing company has since placed the executive on administrative leave, as first reported by The New York Times.

Uber did not respond to SHRM Online's request for comment.

"The sessions were an attempt to engage with a catchy headline," said Dave Wilkin, CEO and co-founder of software company 10KC in New York City. "But instead, it brought to light insensitive content that was incredibly damaging to employees."

"Karen" has been used as a pejorative term in recent years to describe a middle-aged white woman with a strong sense of entitlement who often tries to police the behaviors of others. The stereotype rose in popularity after a 2020 viral video showed a white woman in New York City calling 911 to falsely claim that a Black man had threatened her. The woman later apologized for her actions.

The Uber discussions centered around this stereotype, providing a platform for white female workers to talk about their perceptions of the term.

However, internal chat channels accessed by the Times indicated that many Black and Hispanic employees in attendance said they felt as if they were being lectured during both sessions. A Black worker commented that she was "being scolded for the entirety of that meeting."

Another Black employee argued that diversity sessions should not include "tone-deaf, offensive and triggering conversations."

Juliette Mayers, founder and CEO of DE&I consultation company Inspiration Zone LLC in Boston, said the sessions seemed "ill-conceived" given the lived experiences of people of color who often are subjected to microaggressions. The events that gave rise to the term "Karen" are painful for them, she said.

"I could see how people of color may have felt alienated," Mayers said.

The situation comes nearly five years after Uber's co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, resigned after a former employee's report of sexism and harassment in the workplace. The company agreed in 2019 to a $4.4 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over sexual discrimination charges.

DE&I Experts Discuss 'Karen' Moniker

Karen Kirk, an Ohio-area retired journalist, opined in a 2020 article in The Columbus Dispatch that the term "Karen" has discriminatory undertones against white women and slights the 1.1 million women with the name in the U.S.

"Seeing my name used as a randomly selected, lazy label for racist, privileged white women behaving badly is soul-crushing," she said. "I really thought that this name-shaming would have stopped trending by now, but instead it's becoming part of our culture."

Nika White, a leadership consultant and DE&I expert in Greenville, S.C., said the "Karen" moniker is more of a lifestyle, mindset or personality than it is about someone's race. But she noted that it's "always inappropriate" to call someone something other than their name, especially in a work environment.

"People often called 'Karens' are seen as having a sense of entitlement and superiority and demand special treatment," she said. "However, even if the shoe fits, there should be professionalism at work, and employees should not be called anything other than their name without consent."

Nicole Price, CEO of consultation company Lively Paradox in Kansas City, Mo., explained that she would have never advised her clients to brand a session with a pejorative in the title as Uber did.

"The term 'Karen,' no matter how accurate it may be, is divisive and should not be used strategically to advance an organization's mission," Price said.

Mayers noted that organizations need to "foster inclusive cultures and prioritize psychological safety of all employees" and that she doesn't condone "any labels with the potential to inflame already polarized groups or individuals."

Tips for More Inclusive Workplace Discussions

White said employers must make a conscious effort to address workplace bias and provide safe and open dialogue to address inequities in the workplace. Until then, she said, employees who are part of historically marginalized groups will continue to feel alienated on the job.

"DE&I in the workplace should never be a lecture," White said. "It should involve everyone in the office through multiple learning modalities and engagement around a topic."

Mayers recommended that companies take the following actions to be better equipped to host DE&I discussions:

  • Educate yourself on the topic of discussion.
  • Hire a third-party expert to educate the workforce.
  • Exercise empathy for workers when they share their personal struggles with discrimination.
  • Cultivate relationships with employees and managers of various racial and gender backgrounds. 
  • Host internal networking opportunities to engage workers and help them form bonds.
  • Ensure that all voices have an opportunity to be heard during DE&I events.

Price said it is "critically important" for companies to be well-informed before engaging in conversations about race.

"Everyone has an opinion about the topic, but the goal should be to have an informed opinion," she explained. "When we lack foundational information about the weaponization of race, we stand to do far more harm than good."



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