How To Protect Your Work Culture When "Political Correctness" Is Under Fire

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Donald Trump is set to become the 45th president of the United States, in large part because his slogan “Make America Great Again” resonated, as did his rhetoric disparaging “political correctness.” So there’s reason to believe that some employees may feel newly licensed to express ideas that conflict with many employers’ missions. This isn’t merely hypothetical.

By Wednesday last week, there were already widespread reports of racist incidents and threats, hate crimes, and bigoted speech across the country, in venues ranging from schools to social media to public space. Employers who think these attitudes can’t or won’t spill into the workplace may be mistaken. Here’s what to do to prepare.

First, Know What Not To Suppress

The central idea behind political correctness is that society should monitor speech in public places—including the workplace—to guard against remarks that might offend others.

On its face, Trump’s campaign messaging may not neatly fit that definition. The phrase “Make America Great Again” conveys a political opinion—that the U.S. is no longer a great nation, and that we need to recapture an era that made us great. And this view isn’t strictly ideological (though it’s surely that, too); it has a basis in human psychology. Research demonstrates that people tend to see the past as having been better than it was at the time they were experiencing it.

Nostalgia and the political attitudes associated with it aren’t things that companies can or should try to suppress. Not only is that illegal, it’s also counterproductive. One reason nostalgia is so effective is that people think about things that are distant from them (including things distant in time) more abstractly than things that are close by. Some people—and not just Trump voters—may look back at 1960s America and judge it to have been better than the present. Companies often hired people for life and provided them with a generous pension when they retired, giving many workers a greater sense of security than today, when changing jobs and careers is more common, and often leads to less prosperity.

Psychologically and politically, people are entitled to that impression, but it’s worth remembering—and reminding team members—that others have just as valid a right to see things differently. A half-century ago, women faced routine sexism and were barred from leadership and professional opportunities. People of color faced enormous discrimination, struggling just to secure administrative positions, even after the Civil Rights Movement’s major achievements.

Employers can start by pointing out that, 2016 politics aside, their own workplaces don’t resemble that period—and for good reason. What’s more, many companies still have much further to go when it comes to gender, ethnic, and racial diversity, particularly in leadership positions. So now is the perfect time for organizations to show all their employees that they’re still as committed as ever to changing that.

What Types Of Speech To Address

If these are a few ways to underscore a company’s values and inclusiveness without wading into political speech proper, it may not stop there. The language that’s used in the workplace does matter. Any speech that demeans women sends a message of disrespect and is unacceptable. Likewise, racial and ethnic slurs create overt hostility against people of color. Anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic comments exclude people who exercise their right to freedom of religion. Negative comments about those from the LGBTQ community drives people to hide their identities.

Businesses need to be clear that they won’t tolerate expression like this no matter what it’s called. But they need to be clear about why, and that may open an unexpected door to less incendiary political conversations many companies might otherwise prefer to avoid. The economic recovery from the 2008 financial collapse has not benefitted everyone equally. The gulf between the richest and poorest Americans has grown, and finding ways to address systems-level problems like these will require people to consider solutions that they may find unpalatable at first.

Principled, inclusive employers would do well to acknowledge this rather than bar discussion of it. Allowing people to express political views is not tantamount to reinstating an earlier era’s workplace that was primarily hospitable to white men. After all, homogeneous workplaces threaten innovation. Studies demonstrate that people with multicultural experiences are more creative than those who’ve had more limited ones. In one study of designers, those who’d had more firsthand experience with different cultures and people with disabilities were better at seeing their products in a new light. That leads to better work as well as a more effective work culture—not just a more “politically correct” one.

The Free Exchange Of Ideas Is Good For Business

The free exchange of ideas allows companies to better serve their customers. Businesses thrive and grow by reaching new markets in the U.S. and beyond. Paradoxically, allowing people to speak freely about their prejudices in the workplace inhibits other conversation. People watch what they say when they believe they won’t be accepted for who they are.

Cases of hostile speech should be addressed quickly, seriously, and publicly to send the message that the most divisive language the presidential campaign has thrust to the fore won’t—and can’t—change the way business is done. Among other things, that’s a matter of protecting the bottom line, not just reiterating a company’s values.

The truth is—and the data is clear—that American companies continue to thrive in the world economy because of their diversity and not in spite of it. People who feel impatient with “political correctness” may not feel heard, so companies need to include those folks in the conversation, too. But whenever those voices target or threaten others—when it’s no longer about listening, sharing, and understanding—that’s when employers have to step in and declare what they stand for.

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