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Speak Up When Offended at Work
Diversity leaders advise global organizations on avoiding hurtful language

By Catherine Skrzypinski  1/4/2013

Global diversity professionals say that, to create a workplace environment that prevents offensive language, it’s important to be aware of the differences in how individuals express themselves and how they tend to interact and communicate with colleagues.

“In the past 20 years, two phenomena have occurred in tandem—the rise of political correctness and the dramatic increase in globalization,” wrote Mila Golovine, founder and CEO of Houston-based global language solutions firm MasterWord Services Inc., in an e-mail interview for this article. “Societies have been pressured to be more conscious about their social interactions with each other.”

This sense of self-awareness transcends the corporate world.

John M. Robinson, chief diversity officer at the U.S. Department of State, addressed this issue with American diplomats in an article in the July/August 2012 issue of State Magazine. In the article, Robinson wrote that several commonly used phrases should be dropped because their origins are negative or racially offensive, such as “hold down the fort,” which, he says, originally meant “to protect against vicious Native American intruders.”

In addition, some people think “rule of thumb” references “an antiquated law that allowed men to beat their wives with a stick,” he wrote.

“Going Dutch,” he continued, “implies a negative stereotype that portrays the Dutch as cheap because they will invite someone to a meal, but then not pay for it.”

“Much has been written about whether the etymologies … are true or merely folklore, but this isn’t about their historical validity,” Robinson wrote. “Instead, it is an opportunity to remember that our choice of wording affects our professional environment.”

Unintentional Offenses

Employees adopt popular catchphrases and incorporate them into their vernacular without realizing that doing so could offend others, according to Michael Bach, national director of diversity, equity and inclusion for KPMG LLP Canada.

For example, workers frequently e-mail, text and instant message one another the acronym “OMG” for “oh, my God,” without thinking that it might upset their religious colleagues. “Society is comfortable in taking the Lord’s name in vain,” Bach added.

A bad day at the office could heighten emotions among workers, and some could mutter in frustration: “He (or she) screwed up!” “This sucks!” or “I’m pissed off!” According to Boston-based workplace behavior expert Beverly Flaxington, author of Understanding Difficult People: The Five Secrets of Human Behavior (ATA Press, 2010), “screwed,” “sucks” and “pissed” are slang terms associated originally with a sexual act or bodily function.

“Even though people say these terms in everyday life, they do not belong in the office,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “Many employees—particularly older employees—are offended by such language.”

Some workers choose to eat lunch in their cubicles. If their meal has an unfamiliar odor, a cubicle neighbor might exclaim: “What are you eating? It smells awful!”

While mundane work activities could cause some tense moments, it’s racially tinged remarks that can create an overall hostile work environment, diversity experts concurred. Experts explained that expressions like “the peanut gallery” and a greeting of “Hello, Sunshine” date back to the slavery era in the United States.

“Anytime something is communicated with a feeling of superiority versus inferiority, one has the potential to offend,” wrote Anastasia Gavalas, a family life teacher based in New York, via e-mail.

Separated by a Common Language

Americans working overseas might be shocked, also, by business practices in other English-speaking societies, as what is acceptable in one place might not be acceptable in another.

Australians are generally informal, relaxed and easygoing in business settings, noted Patti McCarthy, director of Cultural Chemistry, a cross-cultural consulting firm in Melbourne. “To some cultures, however, the informality of the Australian workplace may come across as a lack of respect.”

For example, in Australia, men and women are referred to as “mates,” McCarthy explained. “There is also a greater tolerance for swearing … [Australia] is a swearing society, even among upper management.”

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the use of biting humor in a business situation is considered acceptable.

Senior executives tend to “take the piss,” or to make fun of one another in a joking manner more than their American counterparts, according to Neal Goodman, Ph.D., president of Global Dynamics Inc. “This is a part of the repertoire … the colleague is respected more if he or she comes back with a real zinger.”

Lessons Learned

Diversity experts encourage leaders to create an office environment in which people feel safe and respected and are not afraid to speak up if they are offended by an embarrassing, humiliating or demeaning phrase.

“Diversity makes your organization smarter,” Flaxington advised. “Remind workers that being sensitive to diversity makes them smarter.”

Some tips:

  • If employees say they are offended, they are. Remind employees that if someone complains about or reacts to language that is ethnically, racially or sexually offensive, they should not assume that the other person has a problem. The speaker has the problem, and it’s his or her responsibility to remedy the situation. This can happen only if employees speak up, however. “It is a social obligation to make a point that the term is offensive,” Goodman said. “You are condoning it if you don’t stop it.”
  • Say “Ouch!” If an employee makes a comment that could be perceived as offensive, immediately respond with “Ouch!” to voice displeasure.
  • Use the “sandwich” method to correct the behavior. By “sandwiching” negative feedback between two positive statements, a colleague can lessen the sting in reprimanding an individual for saying something inappropriate.
  • Encourage openness. Let colleagues know that any type of bias or offensive language will not be tolerated, nor will it be punished—the first time. Everyone should be allowed to make a mistake once. Employees should be encouraged to point out offensive language without either party suffering negative consequences.

Goodman encouraged human resource managers and senior executives to conduct webinars and focus groups to explore what phrases might be offensive in their particular workplace.

KPMG’s Bach disagreed with this strategy. “Education has to come from the grassroots level,” he explained. “I’m a proponent of ‘guerilla learning’—by sneaking learning lessons into office conversations. This gets people to talk about [offensive words and phrases].”

“Time is the greatest teacher … the conversation of how people want to be viewed has evolved in the past 20 years—not just in the workplace, but in life,” said Catherine Cornelius Smith, general partner of True Blue Inclusion, a consultancy for global diversity and inclusion leaders in Washington, D.C. “While it’s not perfect yet, we are getting more comfortable in reaching out to those who offend to correct [their] behavior.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Related Articles:

Oops! What to Do When an Employee Says the Wrong Thing, SHRM Online Diversity, February 2010
Cultural Competence Is Key for Marketing, Sales and Service Staff,  SHRM Online Diversity, July 2007
What Not to Say: Minimizing Sticks and Stones, SHRM Online Diversity, May 2006

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