Some of the many obstacles women face in the workplace, like sexual harassment, are overt and easy to identify. But others, like "concern trolling," are more subtle. Since concern trolls disguise their shaming as an attempt to help, it can be hard to tell when your boss is concern trolling you. Especially when somebody is charged with looking out for your best interests and their opinion is valued above yours, you may second-guess your reactions to their comments. But if something your boss says feels a little... off, it probably is.
According to the Geek Feminism Wiki, a concern troll is "a person who participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause." Outside of social justice circles, a concern troll can be anybody who poses as your ally, but is actually judging you. People might not even know they're concern trolling because they may actually feel concerned. What makes it trolling, though, is that these people aren't concerned for any good reason. Either they just disagree with your decisions and are upset you're not doing things their way, or they believe they know what's best for you, even when you're perfectly capable of determining what's best for yourself.
But what does concern trolling look like when it comes from your boss? Here are some signs your boss's guidance might be crossing the line into shaming or patronization.
1. They're Trying To "Mantor" You
I first saw this word on the website tableflip.club, which calls on women in tech to stop putting up with being patronized and undervalued. "Mantoring" is a form of mentoring, but it's usually done by a man for a woman, and like "mansplaining," it typically serves to boost the man's ego rather than help the woman (who may not actually need help in the first place). There's nothing wrong with guiding an employee with less experience than you, but if a boss is really into the idea of giving you guidance you don't actually need, they may be mantoring — and when that guidance involves making unnecessary changes to your behavior, they may be concern-trolling.
2. They Underestimate You
A good boss takes as much responsibility as possible when something goes wrong. If you don't do what they hoped you would, they ask whether they could have communicated the instructions better before blaming you. If a boss jumps to the conclusion that you need to improve, they're not giving you fair credit — and if they advise you to develop a skill you already have, they're concern-trolling you.
3. They Police What You Wear
As long as you're not doing anything outrageous, a boss who tries to police what you're wearing to work or work-related events doesn't usually have your best interests in mind. Yes, we often have to dress professionally, but when it reaches an extreme, you've got to wonder whether the height of your heels will really affect how many deals you close. Bosses who obsess over these details are usually more concerned with controlling their employees than helping them.
4. They Tone-Police You
If a boss is concerned that you're coming off too aggressive, chance are that if you toned it down, they'd be equally concerned that you weren't assertive enough. When it comes to the way we speak in the workplace, women can't win. A boss who tries to control the way a woman speaks (again, unless she's doing something outrageous) is putting undue blame on her to accommodate other people's sexism.
5. They Define Your Limits For You
A boss should offer you opportunities to advance and let you take on whatever you're up for. But if you're a woman, and especially if you're also a mom, there's a good chance you've experienced the opposite. According to Deloitte's Millennial Survey, half of Millennial women believe they're being overlooked for leadership positions at their companies. And according to a study by Catalyst, an organization that furthers women in the workplace, women are less likely to receive major assignments that lead to promotions. This may especially be a problem when you have kids at home and a boss assumes you need to limit your work hours to take care of them. When a boss cuts off your workload because they don't want you to push your supposed limits, they're not just concern-trolling you but also maintaining workplace inequality.