The Paralysis of Political Correctness

Stymied about the right thing to say, for fear of offending? You're not alone. Read on.

By Valda Boyd Ford Nov 1, 2007

HR Magazine: November 2007

“Help me, I’m stuck,” pleaded a longtime physician friend on the phone one evening about a year ago. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “I have to give a talk to the Cuban Physicians Society in Miami,” he said.

I was all ears. I asked him if he needed an opener, a funny story or some other information I could provide. “Uh, no, Valda,” he said. “I need to know what to call them.” I was glad he wasn’t watching me slowly repeat his phrase. “Call who what?” I asked. “What should I call the people I’m going to talk to—Hispanics or Latinos?” He wasn’t kidding. I was astonished. I said, “Let’s analyze the situation. If you need to give them a label, there is a clue: They named their organization the Cuban Physicians Society. If they are in desperate need for you to label them, you may be relatively safe with ‘Cuban.’ They want your clinical expertise. Yet here you are—paralyzed over what politically correct term to call them.”

What is it that makes brilliant people become concerned to the point of paralysis about simple common sense issues, just because they involve race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion or physical ability?

Today, we are awash in workplace or business- related incidents where a casual comment, remark or question can invoke profound misunderstandings and consequences. People have grown afraid to voice their opinions and communicate honestly.

Words are chosen with care and meticulousness that often border on the absurd.

I am not talking about the Don Imuses of the world and their shock-jock-style verbal abuse. I’m talking about daily, professional conversations between well-meaning people: co-workers, administrators and employees, employees and clients, patients and customers. We face a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable speech, and we need to be forgiving when wellmeaning people inadvertently hurt our feelings. Even I often interpret casual remarks as negatives if they contain words that I perceive as references to my size. No one is immune.

I define the paralysis of political correctness (PC) as:

  • The fear that keeps us from communicating in culturally and linguistically awkward situations.
  • The fear of using sensitive words or communications because they might embarrass or hurt the sender or receiver.
  • That tongue-tied, stomach-churning sensation that makes us avoid those employees who may need us the most.

What is it that makes us wonder, “Should I say Indian or Native American?” What is it that makes us drop our voices, blush or gush forth a profusion of words, trying to quickly recover from an embarrassing gaffe like “My best friend is Asian” or “My aunt is paralyzed, too—and she’s really smart.” In these moments, speakers realize that they are digging a hole and that hole will just continue to get deeper as long as they continue to speak. In these instances, the paralysis of PC makes us speak without thinking in a desperate attempt to repair perceived damage.

Label Your Hang-Ups

There are four basic fears that lead to the paralysis of PC:

  • Fear of a lack of knowledge.
  • Fear of regulatory and administrative reprisal.
  • Fear of a lack of competence.
  • Fear of a deficit--lack of knowledge or competence--being found out.

In a politically correct world, human resource managers never know when the next errant word or phrase will result in a grievance, termination or lawsuit. Virtually every message, publication or e-mail has to be “wordsmithed” to death for fear that one word, phrase or reference will ignite controversy. Corporate and academic executives, government officials, and celebrities have seen their careers destroyed after saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in front of the wrong people.

We seem most uncomfortable when addressing someone who is paralyzed. One friend, for example, hates being called“physically challenged.” He says, “I am not challenged to get out of this wheelchair. It’s OK to say that I am disabled, for God’s sake. ‘Challenged’ makes it sound like, if I’d only just try hard enough, I could walk.”

Last June, I clipped a Father’s Day resolution from The Sacramento Bee praising “single fathers, foster fathers, adoptive fathers, biological fathers, stepfathers, families headed by two fathers, grandfathers raising grandchildren, fathers in blended households, and other nontraditional fathers.” I know the editors were trying to say Happy Father’s Day to everyone, but come on.

Special education expert Rick Lavoie says, “People have become so overly sensitive that we all constantly find ourselves ‘on guard’ so that we don’t offend anyone. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘Political correctness means always having to say you are sorry.’ ”

I have worked with HR professionals swamped with employee grievances about perceived verbal insults. And employee communication gets more complicated as we work for global corporations. The learning never ends. We are afraid to say we don’t know, so we look for shortcuts. Expressing a lack of knowledge is not the crime--but willingly staying ignorant is criminal.

There are three steps business leaders can take to help employees avoid PC paralysis as it relates to communication among themselves and their customers (see “Help Employees Reach Out” on page 71).

Miscommunication Knows No Borders

Yet HR professionals need to identify their own fears before they can help others deal with miscommunication. I uncovered a poignant example of this following a presentation on PC paralysis that I gave at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Annual Conference last June in Las Vegas. Afterward, an attendee came up to describe a situation that spans the gamut of PC issues from inappropriate public behavior to sexual orientation.

The attendee, an HR administrator, said that a gay male employee at her company was identified in photographs on an Internet site, and the photos were considered risqué by other employees. She hadn’t visited the site herself, but one source of the information expressed concern that the photos might not meet the company’s standards and policies. To resolve the issue, the administrator met with another member from her HR department and the employee’s unit supervisor-- who just happened to be a gay man.

During the meeting, the HR professional asked the administrator what she thought of the site. “Why are you asking me?” she said. “Why aren’t you asking him [the unit supervisor]?”

The administrator said she felt that the others at the meeting took offense at her response. She asked me if her response was politically incorrect.

I identified two issues the administrator faced: her response and any problems created by the photos.

Regarding her comment at the meeting, I reminded her that we live in a society where “gay” behavior is often considered inappropriate. Just visiting a gay site may be considered inappropriate behavior by some people. When asked if she had visited the site, the administrator flinched because she may have thought it implied she was gay and she took offense. On the other hand, maybe she was trying to say that a member of the gay community could better assess the appropriateness of the images and put them in context.

Nevertheless, the comment was perceived as politically incorrect.

Second, I told her, standards of behavior must be the same in straight or gay situations. If the concern was that the physical appearance of the employee in the photos would be considered inappropriate—using standards that derive from company policy or basic common sense—then the administrator could very well have visited the site and made an assessment with no fuss.

Naked is naked, whoever you are.

The key to effective communication: Take every potential conflict in communication and continually use it to expand dialogue. Discomfort, fear and the need for PC diminish as we learn more, expand life experiences and gain ease in interacting with people unlike ourselves. This is particularly important for HR professionals. You can’t drill down past an insensitive word or phrase if you are paralyzed.

Organizational Paralysis

I have asked executives from global companies about the ways paralysis of PC plays out in their organizations. Many spend weeks and months working on every detail, speech and announcement to avoid faux pas. “Executives are not exempt from the fear of political correctness and may be even more paralyzed than people at most levels in the workplace. If people in the workplace could only see that the lack of open, honest communication will only hold back a company. The paralysis of PC delays creative systems, strategies and, ultimately, greater success. Our competition should be coming from external and not from internal sources,” says Kathy Johnson, PHR, senior vice president of Godfather’s Pizza Inc. in Omaha, Neb.

Paralysis runs rampant throughout organizations. Rubin Carter, division manager of corporate diversity and advocacy at Omaha Public Power District, says, “Even when people leave the organization, they are still afraid to be open about their reasons for leaving. They are afraid that if they say something considered politically incorrect and their situations change, they cannot come back here to work or what they say may keep them from getting the next job in another firm. Or they fear that what they say will make it worse for the people they leave behind.”

Carter adds, “You solve issues by talking about and not around the issues.”

We must, as HR professionals, make people feel comfortable talking about the uncomfortable and develop environments where we promote forgiveness. When we know that one strike is not “out,” then we can work on solutions for all and stop hiding behind simple ignorance. I am sure we will have to continue this discussion to avoid the paralysis of political correctness.

Valda Boyd Ford is chief executive officer of the Center for Human Diversity in Omaha, Neb.

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