with Stephen Hammond
Tip #1 — PAY ATTENTION TO MERE WORDS
Chinaman Lake lies just outside Hudson's Hope in northern British Columbia. It was named a long time ago. But times change, and what was innocuous for decades can come around and bite people on the butt. In October 1996, Victor Wong, then president of the Vancouver Association of Chinese-Canadians, petitioned the province to change the name. Not only did the government agree; it also decided to rescind the names of Chinamen Flat, Chinamen Rapids and Chinaman Flat Rapids in other parts of the province. When the news got out, many people (mostly non-Chinese) were outraged. "Political correctness run amok," people cried. Hundreds of miles away, Vancouver newspapers ran letters from people who asked, "What's next? Change the name of English Bay?" Even some Chinese Canadians voiced displeasure at having to deal with negative publicity arising from the controversy. Today, citizens of B.C. can still find references to these names, but officially, they no longer adorn the lake, rapids and other points of geography.
Years later, during a session I was leading about workplace harassment, someone raised the issue of Chinamen Lake, offering it as an example of how political correctness had gone too far, and how we waste time and tax dollars on issues insignificant to most people. The group comprised well-paid, reasonably well educated white males, with a few exceptions. As I made stumbling efforts at convincing the group that Chinaman was a derogatory word for Chinese people, a Chinese Canadian employee raised his hand. This in itself was remarkable, since I've long noticed that employees of male-dominated workplaces avoid revealing weaknesses. But this brave soul had a message. He said, "Whenever I hear the word “chinaman,” it reminds me of the times in the schoolyard when I was on the ground and someone was kicking me in the head." I knew we had a teachable moment. You could have heard a pin drop.
Words have an impact in any line of work. Mere words can bring down morale, make valuable people quit their jobs, and lose customers on the spot. We all know that racial and sexual slurs are no longer tolerated at work. However, today's debate is about how far such sensitivity goes and hence there can still be confusion and uncertainty.
1) Start with the worst - if you have people still making comments or jokes that are clearly inappropriate, then let those people know you don't want to hear them again. If the words used are obviously inappropriate to everyone, then you won't be dealing with any debates and discussions that things are "going too far" or are "politically correct."
2) Have a group discussion - in one of your staff meetings, bring up your desire to clean up some of the language. Bring up the obvious ones and ask others what they'd like to eliminate/change as well. If people can truly speak their minds, they will bring forward examples that have been bugging them. If they don't, then spend time creating that trust.
3) Don't get side-tracked - sometimes people like to side-track your efforts about inappropriate language by bringing up examples that no one cares about. For example, someone might say, "Now we'll have to start saying 'vertically challenged' as opposed to 'short'." Address this quickly and without debate, saying you're not interested in dealing with every language issue, but you are for the ones that are clearly a problem.
This is TIP #1 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors.
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