Diversity and Inclusion

by Gamiel Yafai

Political correctness gone mad

In the workplace people are often faced with situations which end up being classified as political correctness gone mad.

Political correctness gone mad as an absolute term, we feel, is meaningless; it only acquires meaning when seen in specific contexts. Often, political correctness is an extreme reaction to a situation where an organisation has found itself in the diversity and equality firing line. For example, it is reputed that as a response to criticisms of institutional racism the Metropolitan Police issued booklets consisting of words and terms which officers could use, and not use.

Blue collar/white collar becomes very relevant when thinking about whether your organisation is representative of the population. For example, there have been situations where an organisation has demonstrated that they employ a diverse workforce, but the diversity is most predominant amongst its blue-collar population. Commonly-related experiences tell us that those aspiring to management may well hale from a variety of backgrounds, but the trends in terms of those achieving promotion have changed only marginally. Sometimes, this is a function of the nature of the industry or sector, where there may be relatively little staff turnover so opportunities are not so readily available.

In such situations, as has been observed with the British Army, it takes a concerted effort on the part of the organisation to consciously and persistently work towards creating a diverse and effective workforce throughout its hierarchy. In our opinion, the sensationalising of a few instances can lead to such efforts being unfairly branded as political correctness gone mad.

Good intentions, bad results

Sometimes, in an effort to appear not to be offensive, people acting with good intentions have provoked extreme reactions on the part of others in the organisation and in the media. For example, it was reported that a school in Hampshire had asked parents to support the multi-cultural ethos of the school by sending greeting cards for different festivals (such as Eid and Diwali), but then wrote asking them not to send Christmas cards in December in case it was offensive to the Muslims and Hindu families.

Even as far back as 2003, the BBC reported that the Red Cross had banned Christmas nativity decorations from its UK charity shops in case they offended customers of other faiths. One volunteer, Christine Banks, was dismayed to be told to take a nativity scene out of the window of the Kent shop she worked in. She said it was political correctness gone mad and leading British Muslim Labour peer Lord Ahmed said it was ‘stupid’ to think other faiths would be offended by Christian symbols.

The nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black sheep, dating back to the Middle Ages and referring to the taxes imposed on wool, has fallen foul of political correctness. In 2000 Birmingham City Council tried to ban the rhyme, after claiming that it was racist and portrayed negative stereotypes. The council rescinded the ban after black parents said this was ludicrous. So what can appear highly offensive to some may well be interpreted as political correctness gone mad by others. You would only have to do a Google search on the term Baa Baa Black Sheep to see the confusion surrounding this one term.

One result of all this is that people can become afraid to address genuine issues for fear of offending colleagues/others who are in the majority in the workplace.

Something to consider

Cases such as those mentioned above may be the result of good intentions, but they may on occasion arise because, despite attempts to be in line with diversity aims, the decision makers in reality suffer from unconscious bias or stereotypes that do not represent the ethos of diversity and inclusion: that Muslims and Hindus are intolerant and fanatical, for example, or that black people are too over-sensitive and unsophisticated to appreciate the inoffensive antiquity of a nursery rhyme.

Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache
Do be my enemy – for friendship’s sake!

William Blake

Name calling

Name calling can result in inappropriate nicknames being given to people, often initiated at the time they join a new team/employer. The name calling becomes an initiation test to see how ‘new boy/girl’ fits into the team and because the selected nickname appeared to be funny to someone at that time. For example, a worker in a public service organisation was dubbed as ‘Mick’; the reference being to his Irish origin (in other words, thick mick). When he complained about this, his manager told him that ‘the lads don’t mean anything by this; it’s just a bit of harmless fun and you really need to grow a thicker skin if you want to work here’.

Here, maybe the colleagues concerned intended no offence and had ascribed nicknames to each of their team members, but they had failed to take into account the cultural context surrounding the name given to this individual. This was further compounded by the person in a position of power (white collar) dismissing the issue as superficial.

Key point

If someone finds a name or a ‘joke’ offensive, then it is, regardless of whether the offender intended to cause offence. In this case, the manager must act immediately and firmly to put a stop to it.