We’ve all encountered a Karen or three—those know-it-all, eternally outraged, self-appointed watchdogs who never got the message that tattletales are for kindergarten. Typically women—mostly white—their entitled interference often results in someone (usually them) calling the police.
Karens would be humorous if not for their potential to cause chaos—or get people hurt. Strident and unyielding, Karens demand to be heard, even if what they’re saying—“That Black kid stole my phone,” or “They’re in the wrong neighborhood,” or, in #PeakKaren style, “You’re making me feel uncomfortable”—belies any semblance of cultural or conventional reason.
Which is why the emergence of the “corporate Karen” is cause for concern. What’s a “corporate Karen”? Think the Central Park Karen—only instead of summoning the police over a bird-watcher in the bushes, she heads straight to H.R. over any perceived slight, no matter how minor. In an earlier era—particularly before the coronavirus—a corporate Karen would have typically smoothed things over with colleagues in person. But emboldened by H.R. departments terrified of Twitter storms—and the tight labor market—millennial and Gen Z workers have been given free rein to unleash Karen-style terror in offices large and small.
“Younger workers today have no problem taking issues straight to human resources or even directly to the C-suite level,” says Pam Weaver, director of people at Curion, a consumer-insights firm based in Illinois. “But there can be very serious implications when bypassing traditional conflict-resolution processes.”
“Younger workers today have no problem taking issues straight to human resources or even directly to the C-suite level.”
Take the case of “Ryan,” a seasoned corporate guy with a tech-heavy LinkedIn profile. Ryan—who’s Black—was fired from his job at a major company after a (white female) junior colleague complained that she felt “physically abused” during a routine conversation to discuss her workload.
Never mind that the chat was on Zoom, that they were in different states, and that another colleague was present on the video call. “She went to H.R., and I was told I’d lost the confidence of my department,” he says. And that was that.
Five years after the rise of the #MeToo movement and almost a decade into #BlackLivesMatter, the corporate reckonings so demanded by activists have firmly taken hold. Sexual harassment is finally verboten, anti-Black (or trans) sentiments are grounds for dismissal, and elaborate mechanisms have been implemented to ensure workplace transparency and accountability. Clearly these are good things—except when they’re not, especially when it comes to Karenism.
“The problem with Karens is that they have no concern for consequence,” says Aleese Real, co-host and producer of the podcast Full-Time Black Woman, which often tackles workplace issues. As they manipulate corporate guilt and exploit H.R. fragility, Karens “are the ultimate bullies. Companies indulge them because the easiest course of action is to simply make the problem go away.” And more often than not, the “problem” is reduced to men such as Ryan—rather than their Karens.
There’s nothing new about corporate Karens—a generation ago, they might simply have been dismissed as “busybodies.” But with nearly 50 percent of the U.S. workforce now comprising millennials and Gen Zers, traditional hierarchies are quickly eroding. The result: those with the least experience—and loudest voices—can wield outsize control over both H.R. and the fates of their often far older colleagues.
In Amber Bodrick’s case, a corporate Karen hounded her for months while Bodrick was working in I.T. for a surgical-hospital start-up in Ohio. Though not her superior, Bodrick’s Karen tried to discredit her work and undermine her decision-making. She was “bratty” and adversarial, says Bodrick, who’s Black, of her Karen, who was white. Eventually, a minor disagreement turned into an obscenities-laden confrontation—with Bodrick on the receiving end. “I calmly addressed her about her behavior,” she recalls, “and then I heard her say, ‘I don’t feel safe,’ and I immediately thought to myself, ‘Here we go.’”
Bodrick’s Karen wrote a three-page complaint letter to H.R.—“She claimed I’d tried to trap her in her office”—and an investigation soon followed. “It took weeks because they interviewed everyone in the office,” she says. “Ultimately, they threatened to reprimand me.” Although the matter was eventually dropped, Bodrick says the entire affair left her “humiliated, embarrassed, and degraded.”
Her employer, new to the market and quickly gaining press cred, “was mostly concerned about avoiding negative publicity,” Bodrick explains. “No one came to my defense. I felt extremely isolated, and so I packed my stuff up and moved on to a new job.” Since then, Bodrick says, “I’ve only had Black bosses.”
Those with the least experience—and loudest voices—can wield outsize control over both H.R. and the fates of their often far older colleagues.
To be clear, corporate Karenism isn’t necessarily about race. White Karens can obviously have white targets. “And Black people can certainly be Karens, too,” says Real’s co-host, Esha Belle. “We’ve all heard about ‘toxic aunties’ or ‘office Sharondas.’” But with people of color still under-represented within the higher reaches of corporate America, Karens are perfectly positioned to leverage the power imbalances that have historically kept minorities from advancing in their careers.
For one thing, “people of color are afforded far less room for error in the workplace,” says “Jennifer,” a senior-level H.R. executive who’s worked at a series of prominent creative-industry conglomerates. In other words, a modest slipup—or mere misunderstanding—by someone Black or brown can far more easily catch a Karen’s eye than if “committed” by a white colleague.
What’s more, with H.R. leadership more often than not being white, minorities “are also far less likely to reach out to H.R. if and when professional challenges arise,” Jennifer continues. Unlike many white employees, “people of color simply don’t expect H.R. to rescue them,” she continues.
Why would they? As Ryan observes, “We’re hardwired to trust people we identify with, people who look like us. And in the case of corporate H.R., this almost inevitably means white people.” This also increasingly means young people, observes workplace academic and consultant Di Ann Sanchez. “As the workforce has gotten younger, so too has H.R.,” she explains. “And because they’re closer in age range, younger workers may now view H.R. as their peers.” Primed to pounce on this org-chart upheaval, Karens have “even more reason to bypass their direct, often older managers,” Sanchez notes.
The biggest boost to Karenism, however, has been the unquenchable corporate quest for “most woke” status: diversity reports, hiring metrics, anonymous-complaint forums—you get the idea. Which is where the racial dynamics of corporate Karenism become truly next-level loco.
In my own case contending with a corporate Karen, a colleague at a previous job made an anonymous H.R. complaint after I humorously bemoaned the state of “Mexican Wi-Fi”—or was it “Wi-Fi in Mexico”? Or “the Mexicans and their Wi-Fi”?—during a business trip to Mexico City. My mostly white underlings, it seems, felt offended by me—a Black/Jewish/gay guy—despite the fact that I’d have made the same type of comment about faulty technology in, say, Great Neck or Trenton.
I was reprimanded and informed about the necessity of “investigation” and “inclusivity.” There I was, one of the company’s few senior-level Black men, being shamed by a bunch of older white women for offending the sensibilities of their mostly younger, white counterparts, who felt that I had bashed brown people. Talk about an irony matrix!
The real irony is that the complaint was taken seriously in the first place. But post-Weinstein, that’s how things roll—the “need for ‘both-sidesism,’” Ryan explains, “now defies any sense of logic.” And so the woke mechanisms established to support minorities such as myself—and I’m pretty minority—have become weaponized (and Karenized) against me.
As Jennifer sees it, corporate Karenism is likely to become far worse before it gets better. And the biggest losers may just be the companies themselves. “Companies have lost all sense of perspective … and they’re also losing the upper hand,” she says. “Corporations will suffer if they don’t develop clearer boundaries between their youngest employees and H.R. Because they’re creating monsters; entitled, monstrous, spoiled brats.”
David Kaufman is a New York City–based editor and writer