I’ve worked with hundreds of different people in all kinds of businesses and it’s interesting how often the phrase ‘political correctness’ comes up when we talk about Equality, Diversity & Inclusion good practice. Many people think good practice for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion is all about being politically correct, but that’s not the case.
The term ‘political correctness’ or ‘PC’ causes a lot of confusion. When we describe someone as being politically correct, we often mean that they’re choosing to use certain words or take some sort of action so as not to exclude, offend or discriminate against particular individuals or groups.
Sometimes it can be used as a phrase to describe good practice for Diversity and Inclusion. But it can also be used as a critical term - when people think that certain Equality, Diversity & Inclusion practices may be damaging or pointless, rather than constructive.
There are many occasions when people will use the term PC to try and make good Equality & Diversity practice seem silly. When people use the phrase ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’, they usually mean that they feel what’s happening in the name of Equality & Diversity is in fact an unhelpful nuisance.
There are times when this is true – sometimes a desire to conform to misplaced ideas of political correctness can lead to actions that have very little to do with good Equality, Diversity & Inclusion.
For example, a learning provider might change the name of their annual celebration from ‘Christmas party’ to ‘Midwinter party’ for fear of offending Hindu or Muslim colleagues. The Equality Act 2010 doesn’t require anything like this and it’s not an example of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion good practice.
In fact, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would be offended by the concept of a Christmas party, and if there’s any doubt, the best course of action is always to ask for a number of opinions and discuss the issue. Besides, part of good practice in Equality, Diversity & Inclusion rests on mutual tolerance of each other’s beliefs and choices, just so long as they’re not hurting anyone – mentally, physically or socially.
Focussing on what might be thought politically correct can actually stifle the open communication and mutual consideration between people that is the foundation of successful Equality, Diversity & Inclusion.
I was once asked for ‘the official list’ of politically incorrect words that should not be used, so that a manager could circulate it to staff. Actually, there’s no such list. Reducing Equality, Diversity & Inclusion to this kind of a formula achieves nothing.
Try not to get side-lined by ideas of politically correct words and expressions. (It’s that Dos and Don’ts problem again that we looked at in the second article in this series.)
So, for example, when thinking about the language we use, instead of thinking about lists of ‘politically incorrect words’ to avoid, think instead about the more general way in which we communicate with others. Recent research shows that teams work together more productively when they soften their language and avoid using offensive expressions. Being polite and considerate is good for everyone. But that’s not about political correctness. It’s more to do with being civil and treating people with respect.
Getting the balance right can be tricky. Often, what some people call political-correctness-gone-mad is simply the result of muddled thinking and confused decision making, based on the fear of getting Equality, Diversity & Inclusion legislation wrong. People sometimes take unnecessary and misguided action because they’re unsure of what’s required by the law.
We also need to be wary of what’s at the root of some accusations of ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’. This term can be used when someone wants to make reasonable Equality, Diversity & Inclusion actions seem excessive and silly. And let’s not forget that a lot of the stories we hear about ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ are often just pieces of fiction: rumours and misunderstandings that that end up in our newspapers and media feeds.
Most of us want to do what is reasonable and balanced, but we often worry about rules and regulations, including ideas of political correctness. A good position to take is simply to treat all people as individuals, with consideration and thoughtfulness. That way, we usually get it right.
If you assess any of your EDI practices by asking ‘are we being politically correct?’, then you’re asking the wrong question.