to address harassment, bullying and discrimination
with Stephen Hammond
Tip #3 — KEEP UP WITH CHANGING LANGUAGE
Language is fluid; accept changes that make sense. If they don't make sense, feel free to seek out individuals who will explain. Don't feel you need a Ph.D. in languages to figure this all out. Just by observing and listening, you'll soon acquire an ability to figure out the terms people prefer - by the terminology they use.
In Canada, the word Aboriginal is a blanket term to describe First Nations, Métis and Inuit. And yet, there is still the Indian Act, and people have Indian Status, so no one is going to have a heart attack if you use terminology that is not completely keeping up. But we now have the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, so it's possible to make appropriate changes. Hence, if you listen to the words people use, then you'll know what preferred terminology is and you can adjust merely by listening.
If someone is bothered by the disrespectful language you use, you can correct yourself, apologize if appropriate, and move on. Don't let one inappropriate word interfere with your message. Above all, don't say, "It's impossible to keep up with all the terminology." An offended person will take that to mean you are insensitive and it's only impossible when you're addressing individuals or groups you don't care about.
Some people insist on holding onto outdated words they know, or should know are clearly offensive. Take, for example, professional or school sports teams with"native" terminology in their names. Many people are seeing the light and switching the names, but others are digging in their heals, insisting it's about respect. To be clear, if it is about respect, why do no new teams EVER have native or Indian terminology?
Whether offence is meant or not, if you as a leader want to get the best out of employees, you've got to rid the workplace of certain words that are perfectly designed to offend.
And don't let anyone tell you we can't change our terminology. When I was a kid, we used to say, "eenie meanie, miney moe, catch a ..." Know what came next? I lived in a small town in Manitoba at the time, with no Black people around, and no one ever told me the word was wrong. Of course, it was wrong every time we used it, but I didn't know that. Today, kids say "eenie meanie miney moe, catch a tiger by the toe." Somewhere between my youth and the youth of today, we changed our terminology and it was for the better. No one would ever say that's being "politically correct."
1) Be respectful of enquiries - if you or someone else at work asks another person why they don't like a certain word, or someone speaks up, saying they don't like a certain word, there are two ways of responding. One is to play it down or dismiss the importance of it. The other is to listen, try to understand, and then change the wording in the future. It's not that big a deal to change terminology, but it's a huge deal to the person who is affected.
2) Deal with someone complaining this is only "political correctness" - invariably there is someone who isn't willing to change - even in the face of outrageous words. Any suggestions to use different words are met with "this is politically correct b.s." Sometimes that's enough to shut others down because this person is a bit (or a lot) of a bully. Don't let someone's insistence get in the way of wording that keeps your workplace respectful. Perhaps a correct response can be, "You may think this is about being politically correct; I still don't want to hear anyone using that word."
3) You don't need all the answers - sometimes people are sincerely perplexed about which words are appropriate. After all, if language is fluid, then there are plenty of times when words are overlapping and we are learning. Is "Indian summer" acceptable? Do dark skinned people like "person of colour"? As a supervisor, you don't have to have all the answers. If you don't know, just ask.