(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