Does political correctness help or hinder?

May 21 2010 by David Livermore Print This Article

I often wince when I hear managers from outside the U.S. who are committed to the values of cultural intelligence frequently make reference to the "black man", the "gal" at the office, or the "marketing guys". (Of course I hear this plenty from U.S. managers too but that's another story for right now).

I prefer more inclusive language like an "African American man," (assuming it's someone in the U.S.) a "woman" at the office, and the "marketing personnel".

But these same managers who may use what I consider to be less than ideal words to promote the values of cultural sensitivity and effectiveness are usually as passionate about inclusion, diversity, and cultural sensitivity as I am.

I was recently with a group of global managers who laughed at my constant care to say things like "people of color" and "men and women".

One of them said, "Sometimes you Americans are so caught up with your political correctness that it impedes having a real conversation about the issues of inclusion and diversity. And by the way Dave - are you not also a person of color in some way yourself?!"

As a white, privileged male, I'm not going to abandon what I think is more respectful, inclusive language. And I don't think we have to have one without the other - more inclusive, respectful language OR honest conversation about inclusion and diversity.

But their point is well taken. Sometimes our en vogue terms for how we refer to one another have us walking on egg shells to avoid offending anyone and may keep us from having honest, frank interactions about the ways we're struggling to figure this all out in our own relationships and work teams.

I'm struck by the abundance of diversity training we've had in most North American organizations over the last decade. Yet I wonder how much has really changed in workplace behavior as a whole in terms of multicultural interactions.

Most research indicates that prejudiced, conflict-laden perspectives continue to hover over most culturally diverse teams. Using respectful, inclusive language is a start. But might our politically correct terms sometimes mask the ongoing biases and frustrations that lurk beneath our polite labels?

Managers who want to truly promote an inclusive work environment need to find constructive, appropriate ways to honestly discuss the implicit biases that existóincluding their own. Rather than pretending we're color blind, let's face our implicit biases. We all have them.

Not convinced? Check out these fascinating, implicit association tests researched from Harvard. You'll be hard pressed to demonstrate that you're bias-free.

While bias and prejudice is inevitable, acting upon them isn't. The first step is honest acknowledgement of the cultural groups that most significantly challenge us and then consciously choosing to stop from acting upon those biases.

Academic research has continually validated the bottom line benefits for companies that promote inclusion and diversity. I'm not ready to toss aside a new and improved vocabulary as a part of being a culturally intelligent organization that promotes these values. But more significant work needed is beneath the surface so that our language reflects the ways we think and behave as well.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Older Comments

The biggest problem is individuals admitting that there might be a problem that needs to be resolved or addressed. If individuals do not acknowledge or are not prepared to admit that they might be biased, prejudiced or whatever you want to call it (even the tiniest bit), then all of the equality and diversity training in the world is not going to help. Those who attend such events are usually those who acknowledge that inclusivity is essential in today's workforces - trainers are preaching to the converted who want to ensure that they do not, even accidently, offend their colleagues. It takes a great deal of courage to admit to being racist, sexist or that you discriminate on some other, unjustifiable, basis. Many are not able to face this reality and thus claim that they are inclusive, irrespective of the evidence.

How to get people to review their deep-seated beliefs about others and then deal with the reality of the results is a completely different ball game that all the equality and diversity training on earth cannot bring about.


Cheryl-Anne London UK

Does political correctness promote inclusion and diversity? Or does it stop us from having honest, frank interactions with others because we're walking on egg shells to avoid causing offence?

Neither. What it does is stop us from having honest, frank interactions with others because we're worrying about being accused of causing offence by 'offence-takers', 'offence-finders', 'offence seekers on behalf of other imaginary people who might take offence' and their ilk.


Peter Printer