Words Can Do Harm, and Anyone in a Leadership Position Should Understand That and Communicate With Care.
By Thomas J. Roach
Political correctness is a bad word for a good cause. The term has negative connotations because the categories and lists of prohibited words seem to have expanded so much that some people are afraid to open their mouths in public. Yet, words can do harm, and anyone in a leadership position should understand that and communicate with care.
The essential issue behind political correctness is fairness.
Starting in the mid-20th century, enlightened companies in the United States decided on their own to incorporate women and people of color in the workforce and to treat them as equals to their traditional employees. These companies realized that they would be more profitable if the people inside the company looked like their customers and the people outside the company.
It then became apparent that this affirmative action initiative could only be effective if it was accompanied by a fairness initiative. That is, to be effective, diversity had to be coupled with fairness. For obvious reasons, adding people to the workforce but not treating them as equals is counterproductive and creates new problems.
By 1964, the trend toward openness and fairness took on legal status when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to protect government employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson extended that protection to all federal contractors. By 1990, all companies were evaluating their cultures for discriminating behavior, and age and disabilities became additional discrimination concerns.
A Long Way
It might seem that we have come a long way, but in many instances the discriminatory behavior persists only on a more subtle level. In June, a highly publicized remark about women caused an Uber board member to resign. At a staff meeting, in a discussion about the impact of women serving on the Uber board, David Bonderman said that adding a second woman to the board would result in “more talking.”
Is “talking” a pejorative word? Taken out of this context it is not. But words have denotative and connotative meanings. The denotative meaning is the literal interpretation.
Connotative meaning is implied and dependent on context. A word might have one or two denotative meanings, but could have 40 or more connotative meanings. The denotative meaning of talk or talking is not offensive. To talk is to speak.
At least one of the connotative meanings is problematic, however. One meaning of talk is gossip or meaningless conversation, as in, “that’s just talk.” If Bonderman meant that a woman on the board would talk as in speak, then no harm, no foul. If he meant that going from one woman to two women on the board would lead to gossip and meaningless deliberations, then he was marginalizing the role of women in the company. Which was it?
Board meetings are places where talk is required. Of course, board members talk; what would be the point of Bonderman’s remark if the connotative meaning of gossip wasn’t intended? What if Bonderman said that adding another man to the board would lead to more talking? The pejorative connotative meaning isn’t as apparent; the sentence would be nonsensical.
Sexist language that alienates and belittles women is uncivilized, but from a strict business perspective it is also counterproductive. It inhibits the creative potential of an organization, because it puts half of its workforce at a disadvantage when advancing their ideas and when competing for jobs and promotions. It is therefore reasonable and necessary that companies monitor and prohibit discriminatory language.
Cultural habits take years to change. American businesses have made significant progress leveling the playing field. In most work environments, it is unacceptable to make racial slurs, curse or tell offensive jokes.
The campaign against discrimination necessarily focuses on finer points as it moves forward. Fifty years ago, Bonderman’s comment would have met with nods of approval and laughter. Today we understand that sticks and stones will break our bones, and words can also hurt us.
Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].