(Disclaimer: This is the third piece in a three part series on Diversity and Inclusion. I’m lucky to work at a company like AppNexus that values D&I and provides training for employees – however not all companies are as forward thinking as AppNexus.  The below post was inspired by a few different workplace stories I heard about through friends and family that I’ve combined into one fictitious case- enjoy.)

Consider this is case.

A manager is given a warning by HR that he said something insensitive on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity to an employee.

To protect the employee, the manager is not given an explanation of the offense, nor the name of the employee – he’s just told that if he does it again, he’ll be fired.

The problem is: the manager legitimately does not know what he did.  He’s not a hateful person, just ignorant.  He doesn’t know what it feels like to be someone of a different gender, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity and probably has said things all his life that could be heard as slightly offensive.

Ultimately the manager repeats the offense and is fired. Still without explanation.

The manager is outraged.  He can’t believe what’s happening and can only conclude that the company has gotten too “politically correct.”

Two things are wrong here.

1) If We Don’t Learn We Won’t Get Better

It’s important to protect the identity of any victims (if appropriate and desired), but if we can’t talk openly about what is and is not appropriate behavior – it will have a polarizing effect.  In the above case, even if the manager wanted to behave appropriately, he never had the chance. Considering diversity and inclusion offenses to be a crime is often counterproductive as many insensitive comments are not meant as a crime.  If we treat the offender as a criminal, we give them no opportunity to learn and grow.

What’s worse, this scenario can often push would-be reformed offenders the opposite direction and harden them into the view that their behavior is fine and they are being persecuted for simply not being “politically correct” – downplaying the impact of their actions.

Ideally education and conversation about appropriate behavior should start far before a fire-able offense has taken place.

2) The “PC” Excuse

We’ve all heard the excuse – passing D&I offenses off as just not being “politically correct.”  While I agree that we can’t all go around walking on eggshells for fear of saying something wrong, we also can’t use political correctness as an excuse to perpetuate current gender, racial, sexual orientation norms.

To get better I think we have to face the fact that we are all guilty of some D&I offenses. Most offenses are small and not meant in a malicious way. We need to decriminalize these offenses and be able to talk about them in an open and judgement free way.  Remove the stigma from saying something insensitive as long as it’s quickly caught or amended.

No one is perfect.  Criminalizing D&I offenses serves only to create criminals, it does nothing to prevent future offenses or create a more inclusive environment.

Political Correctness
  • > To protect the employee, the manager is not given an explanation of the offense, nor the name of the employee – he’s just told that if he does it again, he’ll be fired.

    Good.

    > Ultimately the manager repeats the offense and is fired. Still without explanation.

    Not ideal, but for the best.

    _____

    I think, Andrew, that if you’re in management it’s _your responsibility_ to understand and handle these issues (e.g. having power over a diverse group of people). Managers are not glorified individual contributors, where the focus is on their personal output (and they can scale their decisions by assigning hours to their projects).

    If the manager knew they said some _sufficiently bad_ to motive a firing offense — that’s pretty steep. There are all sorts of things they _personally_ could have done (e.g. ask mentors, read books, go to trainings, ask for feedback from their team, etc) if they knew they were failing their job that badly. If they did that and it wasn’t enough — that’s unfortunate. But the idea of someone having corporate power over a team, and being either unaware or uncaring of the threat that power carries, as well as oblivious enough to be extremely offensive… it’s a bad combination.

    >To get better I think we have to face the fact that we are all guilty of some D&I offenses. Most offenses are small and not meant in a malicious way.

    That’s quite likely true. However, having a _malicious intent_ and a _malicious effect_ are two different things. I can work with an individual contributor (IC) who doesn’t understand how other people can be offended by their statements. I *cannot* tolerate a manager who convinces her people that she’s malicious, who has the threat of power over her team.

    > We need to decriminalize these offenses and be able to talk about them in an open and judgement free way.

    Yes, I agree. I’m not sure I see a shortage of these forums, either in companies or in outside groups. There are mailing lists, Slack teams, Meetups, etc — all of which provide a safe, open forum to discuss.

    Managers do not get to treat _the team they’re running_ as a consequence-free training ground for learning about diversity and inclusion. The psychological and emotional power a manager (usually) has over their team is large enough to require higher standards.

  • I hear your point on direct manager/employee relationship being sensitive. Would it change your perspective if the employee victim was not directly on the managers team or was a peer to the manager? (Again this is a fictitious situation, just curious on your read).

    I suppose my point here is: the world is evolving quickly in a positive direction when it comes to D&I. Some behavior that would have been maybe frowned upon, but tolerated 10 years ago could be considered a fireable offense today. Our senior leaders need to create an environment where D&I education takes place ideally before an incident like this occurs and everyone has a fair shot at learning how to be inclusive.

  • > Would it change your perspective if the employee victim was not directly on the managers team or was a peer to the manager?

    Yes, that would change the dynamic. There’s less of a power imbalance (absolutely unacceptable), and more room to minimize contact. I also think it’s much less like it’d lead directly to termination without more obvious escalations, precisely because the company has more options to protect all parties.

    > Some behavior that would have been maybe frowned upon, but tolerated 10 years ago could be considered a fireable offense today.

    That might be true, but I don’t get the sense. 20 years ago, yes; and 30 years ago is dramatic shift.

    > Our senior leaders need to create an environment where D&I education takes place ideally before an incident like this occurs and everyone has a fair shot at learning how to be inclusive.

    Certainly true: and a big part of that is ensuring that people understand that D&I is a necessary part of their job. And for management, the standards are much higher because they _represent the company_ and _set and enforce policy_.

    The best way to persuade managers that this kind of thing is important is to fire a few of them. Otherwise, it’s obvious that “good performance” is what “really matters” and D&I is a “nice to have.”

  • By best – I assume you mean “most effective” rather than optimal.

    An ounce of prevention is worth a — a lot of cure? I forget the saying.