What is “offensive?”

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A person stands thinking beside a blue question markOrganization leaders usually aren’t excited to talk about workplace harassment. No surprises there. The subject makes many people uncomfortable.  The topic makes all manner of employees, managers and staff alike, uncomfortable because offensive behavior needs to meet two criteria, be offensive and unwelcomed, to be on the path to creating a hostile environment.  While we generally know what unwelcomed means, the definition of “offensive” can be hard to pin down. Managers grapple with the notion of offensiveness for these reasons:

  1. They find it nearly impossible to distinguish where the boundaries are among offensive, inappropriate, and hypersensitivity;
  2. They don’t know how to articulate the reality that “offensive” doesn’t have a black and white definition;
  3. They fear creating an environment that lacks the genuine, informal exchange that is necessary for teamwork occur; and
  4. They haven’t invested the time necessary to effectively discuss their philosophies on the topic in a manner that reflects the standards of their organization and their personal standard while remaining within the boundaries of the law.

It is easy to dismiss reasons such as these under the guise of, “picking and choosing your battles” for the sake of time management and reduce the issue to “HR’s problem” should anybody ever make a complaint. The problem is that the best defense is offense! If you, the manager, don’t have a clear rationale that you can articulate, how can you adequately demonstrate desired behavior or address problematic issues before they manifest as formal complaints, particularly if an employee attempts to address an issue with you before approaching either State or Federal agencies?

In order to do develop and articulate a rationale, you have to confidently embrace realities about the opaque nature of what is defined as offensive while simultaneously demanding that employees accept that same reality. This is important because while the boundaries may be unclear, there are occasions when people are not confused. They simply don’t like being forced to contemplate or make decisions about their behavior in the absence of clearly defined boundaries.  Frankly, there is something comfortable about black and white boundaries. In fact, such boundaries can propel people toward malicious compliance as they actively violate the spirit and philosophy of an organization’s attempt to develop and/or manage its culture even though they may be technically within the confines of “acceptable behavior”. When leaders don’t own this reality, employees are more likely to question management’s commitment to establishing a respectful and inclusive culture as well as the ethics and competence of the leader dodging the question, “What is offensive?”

 

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