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The Words We Use at Work Matter More Than You Think: The Broadsheet

September 20, 2019, 12:32 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! It’s a big day for Greta Thunberg, Mary Barra plans GM’s electric vehicle future, and company mission statements are more than just hot air. Have a wonderful weekend. 

EVERYONE'S TALKING

- Words will never hurt me? Do you—like me—tend to roll your eyes at the (often cliched or nonsensical) language of corporate mission statements? Well, it seems that we should be taking those words seriously after all. 

Emma has the story of some new research from a group of professors who attempted to discover whether the language used in a company's value or mission statements has a demonstrable effect on the business's corporate culture and the behavior of the people who work there. 

Here's what they learned: Companies that define themselves with language that reflects an "act first, ask questions later" mentality were more likely to have Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination complaints filed against them than organizations that lean toward thoughtful language. (All the companies in their sample set were large retail franchises, including McDonald's, 7-Eleven, and Cinnabon.) "Act-first" words include "act," "dare," "can't wait," "fast," and "change." More measured verbiage includes  "observe," "question," "thorough," "truth," and "consider."

But does that mean language actually shapes culture—or that it simply reflects a culture that's already reckless or discriminatory? To answer that question, the researchers performed an experiment in which participants were presented with randomly assigned company statements—some of which were packed with act-first language, others with words associated with more deliberative behavior. They then asked the participants to make "managerial decisions" for the fictional businesses based on scenarios from real EEOC cases. Sure enough, those who had been given the more aggressive mission statements were more likely to act in discriminatory ways.

Of course, an academic study is not necessarily proof positive about how things play out in the real world. But it's certainly something to think about when choosing the language we use to describe ourselves, our colleagues, and our workplaces. 

Kristen Bellstrom
kristen.bellstrom@fortune.com
@kayelbee

 

ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- Go, Greta. Today is poised to be the biggest global climate strike yet, with more than 3,600 events planned around the world. It all leads up to the first-ever UN Youth Climate Summit in New York on Saturday. The event is a testament to the power of what one person can do: the main organizing group is #FridaysForFuture, which was started by then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg and her protest outside Swedish parliament. Since then, hundreds of thousands of other students have joined. Check out photos from the strikes here—and follow their progress throughout the day here. 

- Seeking asylum. Gulalai Ismail, the women's rights activist who was accused of treason by Pakistan after speaking out about abuses by the country's military, has arrived in the United States (Brooklyn, specifically) where she's seeking political asylum. New York Times

- Where to work. Fortune partner Great Place to Work analyzed which workplaces receive the best reviews from their female employees. Hilton, Ultimate Software, and Wegmans finish at the top: Fortune/Great Place to Work

- Listen up. Even if you're not a regular listener of The Daily, it's worth tuning in to the podcast's series this week on how mother-daughter attorneys Gloria Allred and Lisa Bloom, known for representing victims of sexual abuse, silenced Harvey Weinstein's accusers. Bloom worked for Weinstein and strategized to discredit women who came forward, while Allred represented an early accuser and negotiated a settlement that kept her silent. Reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey explain: New York Times

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: GlaxoSmithKline chief Emma Walmsley joins the board of directors at Microsoft. LinkedIn CMO Shannon Brayton will leave at the end of the year; she'll be replaced in the role by VP of brand marketing and communications Melissa Selcher. Tory Burch's Rebecca Bagin joins KIND as chief human resources officer. RBC Wealth Management U.S. named Kristen Kimmell head of advisor recruiting and field marketing. BuzzFeed hired the New York TimesSamantha Henig as executive editor and Katie Sitter as senior VP of people

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

- EV at GM. GM chief Mary Barra's most urgent problem may be resolving her workers' strike, but she's still plotting GM's long-term future. "Once you start to believe in the science of global warming and look at the regulatory environment around the world, it becomes pretty clear that to win in the future, you’ve got to win [electric vehicles]," she says in a new profile. Bloomberg

- What comes next. For Fortune, Women for Women International founder and PBS host Zainab Salbi argues that women and society at large need to develop pathways for men accused of sexual harassment—especially the non-famous ones—to rehabilitate. She comes up with an analogy: the process of restorative justice in Rwanda after the country's genocide. Fortune   

- Color me intrigued. Is Madison Reed the next Drybar? The hair color startup founded by CEO Amy Errett, which sells do-it-yourself hair color that has gained popularity for its more natural ingredients than many drugstore alternatives, plans to open 600 new stores in the next four years. The locations will offer in-store touchups at what the chain calls Color Bars. Forbes

- Carlson's next act. Gretchen Carlson's settlement with Fox News prevented her from being involved in any projects depicting her experience with sexual harassment at the network (the movie Bombshell is the next one). But she's hosting a new documentary about the NXIVM cult and reflecting on the three years since she took on the boss at Fox. Vanity Fair

Today's Broadsheet was produced by Emma Hinchliffe. Share it with a friend. Looking for previous Broadsheets? Click here.

ON MY RADAR

The Warren selfie line life Slate

How many stories must women share to convince others of their humanity? Time

Whitney Port: What I learned from my miscarriage Refinery29

I buy kegs for the office. Do I have to buy tampons, too? New York Times

QUOTE

"It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. My heart just broke."

-Actor Kaitlyn Dever, who stars in the Netflix series Unbelievable, on her reaction to first reading the script. The show is based on the ProPublica investigation 'An Unbelievable Story of Rape.'