How Does Political Correctness Affect Your Team?

Has the notion of political correctness done anything to reduce discrimination, or has it simply acted to drive wedges of anxiety and discomfort between groups of people?

I recently was facilitating a teambuilding session when the sensitive matter of political correctness was raised. During the session, a staff member commented that he was becoming weary of the “Chinese whispers” within the team. In response, his manager got to his feet, pointed his finger, and declared, “That is not a politically correct comment!” Naturally, the employee he was targeting looked mortified.

So what is it about the language of political correctness (PC) that stirs such reactions in people? Have we reached a point at which it has become a catalyst of competition, prompting people to use it as a mechanism to condescend and undermine others? Or, on the flip side, has it become a device of feigned ignorance that ultimately prevents people from having to accept responsibility?

At an organization I worked with in the past, one senior manager repeatedly used the term, “colored,” in spite of repeated protests from her peers that this term was no longer accepted and was considered offensive. The manager continued to use the term with her “get out” excuse of, “Oops, I keep forgetting, silly me…” As such, the manager felt able to absolve herself of any wrongdoing.

Staying Silent

There is another point for consideration: Have people reached a point where they don’t know what to say or are too fearful of retribution to voice their opinions? At another organization, a board member once approached me after a session I had conducted, and told me he had been apprehensive to ask where I had traveled from that day, for fear that his question would be misconstrued and cause offense. Similarly, a male manager also in attendance that day had wanted to pay a compliment to a colleague about the outfit she was wearing, but felt he couldn’t, in case he received a negative response.

The issue of political correctness is far more complex than just popular opinion of what is acceptable; what is correct to one individual may be incorrect to another. For example, an openly gay man I worked with on a program told us that he would not be insulted if he were called a “faggot,” while another colleague insisted that even though she was heterosexual, she thought the term was unacceptable and offensive. On a similar, but simpler scale, where is the line drawn with referring to men as “boys” or “lads” and women as “girls”? Some would see this as patronizing, while others would consider it a compliment.

Then there are some who see no merit in political correctness, claiming it inhibits free speech and expression of views that in the bigger scheme offend only small groups of people. In this context, some PC language is considered as nothing more than an indulgence lavished upon minority groups.

Be Professional

When I begin a training session about equality and diversity, I ask for everyone to disregard the constraints of political correctness, and simply to conduct themselves in a professional manner. The audible sigh of relief highlights the pressure and fear that the notion of political correctness can instill in people. The fear is either about getting it wrong, or worse still, inadvertently offending others. The group discussions that immediately follow this assertion demonstrate just how prominent people’s concerns are about what is acceptable and unacceptable. The old saying of “one person’s sense of humor is another’s insult” comes to mind. But in a business context, what place does political correctness have within policies and procedures, or even the organization’s culture and ethos? Consider, for example, the ways in which sexist language at work encourages and reinforces sexist attitudes that could, in turn, lead to sexist behaviour, which over time becomes the norm and, therefore, acceptable.

Ultimately, language continually molds and underpins the views and actions of the speaker. The purpose of using language deemed appropriate in such a transitional time is to avoid causing offense to anybody. The concept of political correctness is all about raising awareness, empowering people to make better choices about the language they use, and recognizing the impact of their behavior on others. Language is evolving; historically, what was considered as acceptable now may be perceived as offensive.

The primary aim of political correctness is to minimize discrimination by making derogatory, abusive, or condescending comments socially unacceptable, regardless of the speaker’s intentions. But it must be recognized that the concept of political correctness is, at times, taken to such extremes as to cause a backlash, whereby enforced changes are viewed as threatening to basic freedoms. The movement against the use of the term, “Merry Christmas,” in some areas is a prime example.

What we really need to ask ourselves, though, is whether the notion of political correctness has done anything to reduce discrimination, or has it simply acted to drive wedges of anxiety and discomfort between groups of people.

Inspired by the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Snéha Khilay, founder of Blue Tulip, is a specialist diversity and management/leadership consultant working in the UK and internationally. She has advised board members, CEO, executive directors, and senior managers on how to develop a strategic and operational approach to problem solving, particularly in relation to the changing stance on diversity, equality, and unconscious bias. For more information, visit: