Don't Be Sassy

“When the Women of HR idea first started, someone innocently used the word, “sassy” to describe the tone we should set. I didn't agree. What do you think? Let's continue the conversation.”

“That new CEO is so smart! And says what’s on his mind – consequences be damned! And ambitious! And irreverent! We love his sassy ways.”

If you notice something odd, it might be that it’s unusual to use “sassy” as an adverb for a male CEO’s actions. I’d argue that we generally assume “sassy” only applies to the actions of women, gay men, people of color, or others seen as outside the traditional power structure.

The word “sassy” is defined here as “improperly forward or bold” and Merriam-Webster defines it as “impudent.”  As someone who plans to lead companies, the word “sassy” says “Please don’t take me seriously. I'm passive-aggressive and use humor as a way to avoid responsibility. I will never have power, or be very effective at influencing those who have power, but I will certainly be smart mouthed about your decisions, as ineffectual as my wit may be.” If people are calling you sassy, my guess is that you have a lot of coworkers to commiserate with at the bar after work, but you are not in line to be CEO.

Women of HR, don’t be sassy – be scary and own your power. Does scary mean Fatal Attraction scary? Hell no. It means listening and speaking truthfully, owning your actions,  taking risks, and showing courage. Think Oprah. Or Martha. If you want a seat at the table, call the meeting, sit at the head of the table, tell them what’s going on and what you think you can do together to help make things great. If you’re right, and can influence your peers to act on your input, you will have a deep impact on your company.

Sassy doesn’t help anyone do anything but blow off steam.  No one is going to give you influence and power. Go out and grab it by being competent, astute, deeply networked, and realistic about the world around you. Being a change agent means sticking your neck out, taking a stand, weathering controversy, and being willing to be seen as a threat to the status quo.

You can be great, amazing, positive, even irreverent – but not sassy. At least not often. If we don’t take our role, our influence, and our power seriously, no one else will. We owe it to our communities and our companies to choose scary over sassy.

Photo credit iStockphoto


About the Author

Franny Oxford

Franny Oxford, SPHR is an HR leader for Texas entrepreneurs and privately held companies. Franny is committed to helping all members of the HR profession become better risk takers and stronger questioners of the status quo. Franny's wife is an RN and her 4-year-old daughter is a Princess. Or a Dinosaur. Or sometimes both. Franny blogs at Do the Work and you can connect with her on Twitter as @Frannyo.


Lois Melbourne

This is great. A person does not lead by being sassy, but they can certainly lead by challanging the status quo and showing the way for change.

Yet my favorite quote of the year:
“If you want a seat at the table, call the meeting, sit at the head of the table…” Brilliant!


Margo Rose

Franny: this thought provoking post gave me pause to wonder, “is sassy a sexist term?” I’m inclined to agree. When describing women at work, I prefer the words: strong, wise, articulate, outspoken, and capable. I loved this post, and I am really enjoying this blog.

Margo Rose

Bonita Martin

How about feisty? I’ve been called feisty multiple times recently when going toe-to-toe with a manager. Not sure, what was meant, but I’ll take it as a compliment!

Alicia Arenas (@AliciaSanera)

Franny, I think this is an awesome post. I must admit that Ive been using “sassy” often lately without fully understanding the true meaning of the word. I’ve always thought of it as “spunky” which I think of as a compliment. Thanks for the clarification.

I especially love where you tell us to have the willingness to challenge the status quo. That takes courage and determination, things which we as women (& business owners) should cultivate. Thanks for your inspiring insights.

Sharon in Austin

Great article, and influence is key to people listening when you’re contributing your ideas to grow the business. They take you seriously, you ae so right, a seat at the table!

Thanks and hope to see more soon.


Franny- Great Post! The takeaway here is: Go out and get what you want. I hear the Nike Slogan now. “Just Do It”
Awesome. So glad we met..

Debbie Brown

Bravo FrannyO great post- professional and authentic ! Love the picture!


Thanks for the comments, everybody. I may not have communicated effectively that, to me, the main difference between “scary” and “sassy” is that scary women get things done and wield power and influence effectively. They don’t just complain and make funny comments behind leaders’ backs. Jessica, no one would ever say that you’re that definition of “sassy” – You definitely get things done!

jessica lee - fistful of talent

gosh. and i’m called sassy allll the time. i’ve been gifted a necklace (which i still wear to this day) that even says sassy on the pendant. geez.

on the surface, the definition of sassy isn’t flattering. i get that. same goes for the definition of scary though.

i think whether it’s sassy, bitchy, scary, passive, uber-neutral, fill-in-the-blank with an adjective… you just need to own it and be comfortable with what and who you are, and the reactions from and impact upon others that may result from whatever the trait is. and i hate to use these buzzword, but if it’s genuine, and authentic, and who you are, and you understand how to work with it and at times how you may need to adjust in order to compensate for whatever the trait is, then that’s all that matters.

or am i just being sassy here?

Charlie Duff

So all the times I’ve been described, rather disapprovingly, as ‘scary’, instead of thinking “What is wring with me? Why does everyone think I’m scary?” maybe I should have thought: “Damn right!” and been happy about it!

Chris Frede

I agree Franny. People do not take you seriously if you are sassy. You want them to focus on your actions and being sassy distracts people.

Love what Mike says about leadership being a re-play of high school. The other day an employee was talking with me about not being in the “in crowd”.

Yeesh is righ.

Nice post.

Michael VanDervort

You definitely have a point. Maybe all leadership is in reality is a re-play of high school.

The Cool Kids
the smart kids
The wise asses aka class clowns
the nerds


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