If you’ve looked at TikTok recently, you’ve probably shuddered when you heard this grating voice.
Created by comedian and actor Lisa Beasley, “Corporate Erin” is an iconic character that skewers the inhumane way that institutions can talk to employees with an upbeat voice. In TikTok videos, Corporate Erin traps you in a one-on-one with her as she speaks in long-winded monologues filled with corporate words salads that mean nothing.
As the “manager for the managerial logistics of management at McManagement,” Corporate Erin is going to go ahead and get started on telling you the worst news of your life with a smile, “Okayyy?”
In one of her most popular videos, Corporate Erin explains why she called you in for a meeting today and then proceeds to waste your time saying everything about unclear “deliverables” and a “rollout.”
If you suddenly lose your entire family, she will not acknowledge the gravity of your loss, but she will tell you that under the bereavement policy, immediate family only gets one day off.
Beasley started posting videos as Corporate Erin in 2021, but told HuffPost that her character was influenced by many freelance jobs that she has had where she encountered this voice.
Beasley, who only wanted to be interviewed in character as Corporate Erin, said that channeling your own inner Corporate Erin goes beyond the words you use.
“There’s also just kind of a layer of passive aggressiveness as well, and defensiveness and just kind of always making sure that I’m drilling home my points or my objectives,” Beasley said.
Why is the ‘corporate accent’ so triggering?
Beasley’s videos have received millions of views and clearly struck a nerve, particularly by introducing us to a “corporate accent,” as commenters on her videos call it. For them, the corporate accent happens when you say a lot of corporate jargon but no actual words of substance. With this voice, the person is talking in the back of their throat so quickly that there end up being a lot of “corporate gulps.”
Sara, a Pennsylvania-based STEM professional, said the Corporate Erin videos helped her realise that the corporate accent is something she hears all the time at her job. It’s where “you’re trying to speak from a place of confidence where otherwise none exists,” said Sara, who asked to not be identified by her full name.
“I can’t even say what Corporate Erin does is exaggerated. It’s spot on,” Sara said. “Like that is every meeting that I’m in.”
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,” found the Corporate Erin videos to be hysterical. She said that Beasley’s fast cadence is a key element to a corporate stance where “they don’t really read it and they don’t really want you to hear it.”
“And the facial expression, I think is also part of it: leaning forward as if it’s a gesture of sincerity when the lack of sincerity is the fundamental thing about this stance,” Tannen said.
And although it’s meant to be funny, the corporate accent is also too real.
That’s because these videos are embodying what management researchers call “moral disengagement,” or actions that “we often unconsciously engage in, in order to satisfy ourselves that the harms we are doing are justified,” as one expert previously told HuffPost. A common example of this practice is called “euphemistic labelling,” where bosses rename the life-changing actions of firings or layoffs as “impacts” or “restructuring.”
“I can't even say what Corporate Erin does is exaggerated. It's spot on.”
Erin Kenney, who is a self-described “recovering Corporate Erin,” said that she had to stop watching Beasley’s videos because they were giving her traumatic flashbacks to her own past jobs in marketing. “I jolt out of my phone because I think that I’m actually in a meeting at a job I haven’t had for years,” Kenney told HuffPost.
For Kenney, the Corporate Erin videos sum up the pre-COVID-19 pandemic girlboss era “of proving your undying allegiance to the workplace” that Gen Xers and millennials like herself aspired to achieve.
“My entire 20s was dedicated to ‘I want to be like a Corporate Erin,’ basically. I want to move up in my company, and I’ll do whatever I can to do that,” Kenney said. “That meant going to every single happy hour and staying late and logging back on and volunteering for things that I just did not want to do.”
Your version of a Corporate Erin persona can help you advance and fit in, but it comes at a cost.
In some ways, the corporate voice can also be a necessary evil to adopt if you want to advance.
Beasley said that corporate language patterns like “circle back” were unfamiliar to her at first and can be a barrier to entry for people who want to succeed in the corporate workforce. “If you don’t come in knowing these unspoken rules and these words, then you don’t fit in,” she said.
It can also be a survival mechanism to be taken seriously.
Sara said that she adopts a deeper, more monotone corporate accent that differs from her regular speaking voice to sound more confident.
“It sucks that as a woman and in a male-dominated field, I have to essentially alter my speech to sound more like a man, because otherwise I won’t be taken seriously,” Sara said.
It’s a strategy that can backfire, though. Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of blood-testing startup Theranos, was famous for speaking in a lower, baritone voice during her leadership, despite employees believing it to be fake. (For the record, after being pushed out of corporate America, a New York Times profile observed that Holmes now had a “totally unremarkable voice, no hint of the throaty contralto.”)
TikToks about the hypocrisy of work help us cope through humour.
It’s not just Beasley who is using TikTok humour to poke fun at familiar job injustices. If you have stayed on “work TikTok” long enough, you probably have also run into Corporate Erin’s nonprofit counterpart, Nonprofit Boss. Created by Los Angeles-based actor Nicole Daniels, the Nonprofit Boss character is a composite of different people she’s known and worked with in past nonprofit jobs.
“She’s always worn the same exact costume and is always eating something. The food changes each time,” Daniels said. “Like whether it’s eating, and then she’s also half on her computer ... [she has] that body language that communicates ‘I’m not fully with you.’”
Unlike Corporate Erin, who is more direct about the inhumane realities of corporate America, Nonprofit Boss hides her disrespect by trying to sound as if she’s on your side.
In Nonprofit Boss’ skewed worldview, making you work on Christmas is a way for you to show you’re going “above and beyond.”
Daniels said what’s key for channeling Nonprofit Boss is playing up the disconnect between nonprofit directors getting cushy six-figure salaries while their employees make minimum wage.
“There’s something about that discrepancy that brings in this really kind of over-the-top performance of ‘we’re a family, we’re a community,’” she said.
Sara, who has also watched Nonprofit Boss videos in addition to Corporate Erin TikToks, said: “In both cases, there’s manipulation afoot, but with the Nonprofit Boss, they almost turn it back on you. They make you feel by asking for this raise you must not care about the cause.“
Ultimately, these funny skits are a small way to help us laugh and cope in real hard times.
“Especially for people who have been part of layoffs at their company, or just general ‘oh, no bonuses this year, but oh, yeah, the executives get it,’ all of the shenanigans from corporate — seeing it play out in skit form, it reminds us of some of the less enjoyable moments of our days and lives,” Sara said.
Daniels recalled that recently, she had a fan come up to her at the airport and say: “Thank you so much for this character. This has helped me cope by having humour.”
“She started crying about how hard it has been at her particular nonprofit and in her workplace,” Daniels said. “And so I think for a lot of people, it hits deep if you don’t feel particularly seen in the struggle of that work.”
Daniels said that it makes her happy to know she is helping people feel less alone through her TikToks.
“It made me think of how when I was in nonprofits, I would have definitely wanted to find humour,” she said. “I don’t think there was much when I was going through those things.”