Political Correctness in the Workplace 


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I answered the phone to hear my client’s normally confident voice sound a little hesitant.

“I’m not sure how to make this call, she said. First, know how much we enjoy working with you and that your evaluations are always top notch.”

“What’s wrong” I asked.

“Remember Tom from that training you did last week” she asked?

“Sure, I said. Nice guy”.

“Well, she responded, someone complained about what you said to him.”

At first, I had no clue what she was talking about and then it hit me. As we introduced ourselves in the virtual room, I was shocked at how much Tom looked like my younger brother. I said I’ve heard everyone has a double and told him he was a double for my brother, then joked, that Tom was better looking. Everyone laughed.

Apparently, it was no laughing matter because a woman in the program complained that it was a sexist remark.

The definition of sexist is “prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender, especially against women and girls.” The definition of gender discrimination is a “situation in which people are treated differently simply because they are male or female, rather than on the basis of their individual skills or capabilities”.

I do not consider myself sexist or discriminatory toward any gender. Initially, I dismissed the woman’s offense as ridiculous and a complete overreaction. Perhaps it was. However, as I thought about it for a moment, I realized that what might not seem offensive to me can unintentionally offend someone else.

I asked my client if she wanted me to apologize and she said no, but she was obligated to tell me that someone complained.

In today’s environment, everyone seems to have a different tolerance level for what is being said. What upsets or offends one person may not bother someone else. It’s understandable how people can be offended if someone calls them an ugly name or makes fun of their disability. Yet, if someone told me I should not pursue a singing career because I can’t carry a tune, should I be offended? Maybe you would be, but I would appreciate their honest opinion, whether I agreed with it or not.

So, I’m wondering if political correctness is bubbling out of control. Are we teaching the next generation to be offended by anything that bothers them? How softly do we have to walk on eggshells?

Before you become offended by what I’m suggesting, that is, if you’re not already offended, hear me out.

In singer-songwriter Jason Mraz’s song, Did you get my message, he asks:

Do you ever wonder what happens to the words that we send
Do they bend? Do they break from the flight that they take
And come back together again? With a whole new meaning
And a brand new sense completely unrelated to the one I sent

Our words and the way we use them are frequently misinterpreted and taken out of context. Sometimes, it’s not what we say, but how we say it. Sometimes, how a person reacts to something we say is not our fault. So, I’ve developed a few rules of my own that I want to pass on to you.

  • Ask the right question

For starters, if you are offended by something someone said, determine if that person was deliberately trying to offend you. Then tell them why you were offended so they develop a greater awareness and may refrain from doing it again.

A few weeks ago, I heard a friend ask a group of friends where they get their nails done. A woman answered, “at the Asian place”. There was a discomforting silence. Then someone spoke up and said you really shouldn’t say things like that, to which the woman who made the remark responded, “say what?” After it was explained why her comment was offensive, the woman apologized and told her friends she never realized that referring to someone in those terms was discriminatory.

  • Embrace the learning opportunity

Instead of trying to convince yourself that someone is overreacting, try to understand their      viewpoint before lashing out. You may still decide they’ve overreacted, but you may also discover why they feel the way they do.

As an example, recently a female client told me her male manager constantly tells her not to show emotion, to speak up and be more assertive like her male colleagues. She has told her him she doesn’t want to be someone she’s not and is uncomfortable with the way he phrases feedback. He says she is too sensitive. To her, this is sexism. Other people do not have the right to invalidate your feelings by telling you how you should feel.

  • Don’t respond emotionally

If someone is offended, don’t minimize their feelings with more words. Apologize and let it go. But don’t apologize over and over again as that continually reminds someone of your mistake and prevents the two of you from getting past it.

  • Pay attention

Often, when someone is uncomfortable at something said, subtle body language signs such as crossed arms, raised eyebrows and facial expressions are clues that they may have been offended. Instead of continuing, take a moment to read visual clues so you can stop and assess what is happening.

  • Know when to get help

Most of the time, the above suggestions will take the edge off, but if you can’t resolve the issue, you may need to ask for help. At work, tell your manager what happened so they can help mediate.

I have heard some refer to those who are more easily offended than others as “thin skinned”. Some people go out of their way to be diplomatic when speaking and others simply don’t care who they offend.

While political correctness may mean different things to different people, it is not intended to halt free speech or squash someone else’s opinion. Rather, it’s about trying to understand how certain words and how they are used can be hurtful. If those words unintentionally portray you as sexist, racist or homophobic, instead of making it about you, try to understand how these words affect others.

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