Say What? Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

Has political correctness gone too far? Are supervisors going mute for fear of saying anything offensive? Have politically correct extremists become as narrow-minded and judgmental as the religious extremists and bigots and racists they themselves condemn?

I could not help asking myself this question last December when a visiting African asked me why it is considered offensive in the United States to wish someone a Merry Christmas. He could not fathom why this expression of good will was condemned by so many Americans and why the words Happy Holidays were considered a more appropriate greeting. We had a long talk about America as a melting pot and about Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists living side by side, but he still found the censure of “Merry Christmas” perplexing. As he put it, “It would not offend me if a Jewish person wished me a Happy Chaunkah.”

Derogatory, racist, misogynistic terms, without question, have no place in the workforce. However, with language forever evolving, it’s sometimes difficult for people to keep up with which terms they should and should not use. Once upon a time, Negro was an acceptable designation for an American of African descent. Later that term was considered derogatory and people were told to use the word Black instead. That word, in turn, has become offensive to some and has since been replaced by African American.

In some circles, the mere mention of God is considered offensive lest there be an atheist present.

In her February 2010 online article “Oops! What to Do When an Employee Says the Wrong Thing,” Rebecca Hastings talks about one of Human Resources’ latest responsibilities: coaching management on how to avoid the use of terms employees may find offensive and which might be grounds for costly lawsuits.
At the same time, Hastings acknowledges the difficulty of educating managers in the correct use of terminology when the connotations of certain words change from one day to the next. She quotes Communications Consultant Tim O’Brien’s statement that “people with disabilities currently abhor words like crippled, handicapped, mute, infirm, special and challenged.”

Special and challenged are now considered offensive. What’s left?

This issue isn’t new. In her 2008 MC-SHRM online article, “The Paralysis of Political Correctness,” Valda Boyd Ford voiced her concern about how our country’s obsession with political correctness is causing an outright paralysis in the workplace. “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.”

Ford went on to describe the challenges facing executives as they, “Spend weeks and months working on every detail, speech and announcement to avoid faux pas.”

The extremes to which political correctness is taken seem to vary from coast to coast. Out in Hollywood, live award show MC’s are being carefully vetted and sit-coms sanitized of any hint of political incorrectness. Meanwhile, another type of democracy is alive and well back east where programs like Thirty Rock and Saturday Night Live do not discriminate but make fun of everyone and everything regardless of creed, race, and ethnicity.

Surely all human resources professionals will agree that there is no place for hurtful, insulting, racist, or derogatory language in our workplaces, but how do we deal with the constantly shifting sand of language and with a culture that takes political correctness too far? If it is our responsibility to coach our executives and supervisors in acceptable language, how do we balance that with their need to be able to speak openly and with confidence to their workers? And how can we promote diversity in our workforce and recognize of the inherent value of our employees’ different religious, ethnic, and national backgrounds if we’re expected to tiptoe around any and all references to Christmas and Chanukah and Cinco de Mayo and Ramadan and all the wonderful cultural contributions our workers’ varied different backgrounds have to offer?