The good news is that the feelings and experiences of a wider swath of humanity matter more now. Women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants and folks with disabilities are no longer expected to simply conform and comply, which is good for morale, productivity and the creation of a more humane society. The bad news is that the focus on avoiding “offense” is ineffective, even harmful, because it’s looking in the wrong direction.
“Offense” is about feelings; a person feels offended when they experience another person’s behavior as insulting or disrespectful. There are two problems with over-focusing on avoiding offense.
The first is that anyone can be offended by anything. In a diverse workforce, the possibility that someone will be offended by any particular behavior or decision is higher than ever before. This possibility can (and does) paralyze leaders out of fear, preventing them from making bold decisions — or any decisions. A hyperfocus on avoiding offense can exacerbate a fear-based culture, create a walking-on-eggshells environment or fuel leadership inaction.
The second reason is that keeping everyone happy all the time is not the purpose of an effective leader or a mission-driven organization. An effective leader’s purpose is to make decisions, aligned with clear goals and values, to ensure the organization’s mission is realized. Such a process may be collaborative and generally respectful, but it’s not about pleasing all the people all of the time. It’s about knowing whose feelings and opinions matter most. Creating a more inclusive workplace isn’t about including everything and everyone because that’s neither possible nor effective.
However, the more important issue hidden underneath the preoccupation with “offense” is that creating a more inclusive workplace isn’t always about feelings and opinions! Creating a more inclusive workplace is about getting out of each other’s way. It’s about creating an environment where brilliance and excellence flourish, because more people can bring more of their full selves into that environment. What gets in the way is less what is “offensive” and more what is oppressive.
Oppression exists when a person’s group membership endangers, in a meaningful way, that person’s life or livelihood. Oppression is not about feelings, nor is it always about intent. Where there are habits, beliefs, assumptions and processes that systematically and unfairly disadvantage members of one group compared to another, there is oppression.
Where some groups are thwarted — due to no fault or deficit of their own — in their ability to live physically unharmed, experience good health, earn a fair and dignified living, be safely and adequately housed, and meet basic needs for food, education and belonging, there is oppression. In the workplace, where some groups are unfairly thwarted — due to no fault or deficit of their own — in their ability to be hired, earn fairly, be mentored and developed, be promoted, receive opportunities and choice assignments, contribute their talents and ideas, influence decisions and work free of significant danger, there is oppression.
Oppression is a strong word. It’s a tricky concept because it’s mostly avoided as a topic of meaningful conversation in the U.S., and because it exists independent of feelings. Members of an oppressed group may “feel” oppressed — or not. They may feel offended by a particular behavior — or not.
That doesn’t mean oppression isn’t affecting their lives. Meanwhile, members of a non-oppressed group may also feel offended by a particular behavior. They may even feel like they are oppressed. That doesn’t mean they’re actually oppressed; it usually means the status quo shifted. For example, some white people feel oppressed because we hold less of a majority than we once did in both numbers and cultural dominance. Some men feel oppressed because they are now being held accountable for behaviors that were never OK but now bring meaningful consequences. While being white or male may feel more uncomfortable than before and bring more risk and vulnerability than it once did, as a group whites and males do not experience meaningful or unavoidable endangerment of their lives and livelihoods due to their race or gender, especially compared to people of color and women. That which feels offensive doesn’t always indicate oppression.
When thinking and talking about oppression, it’s important to bear in mind the concept of intersectionality — the way every person has multiple identities that intersect. Therefore, no one person is either oppressed or non-oppressed because we’re complex beings. Most of us are both. White men that are working class or who experience poverty are oppressed in their social class identity (but not in race or gender). Women who are white or grew up wealthy are not oppressed in their race or class identity (but are in gender).
It’s uncomfortable to think and talk about oppression, especially in the workplace. Perhaps a different term is a better fit for your culture, but addressing oppression is key to D&I effectiveness. Rather than focusing on “is this going to offend someone?” focus on “What are the habits, beliefs, assumptions and processes at work in our organization that systematically and unfairly disadvantage members of one identity group compared to another?”
Don’t guess but instead gather data. Start with your hiring and promotion rates, retention and turnover metrics, employee engagement results, productivity and error rates, levels of innovation and creativity, and customer satisfaction ratings. Dig deeper by looking at your HR policies and procedures, onboarding process, organizational strategic plan, market share, marketing and publicity materials, revenue and costs, complaints and lawsuits. Find out what’s getting in the way of your people bringing their full brilliance and excellence to work, and what’s impeding your ability to attract and engage top talent as well as ideal customers.
Creating a world that works better for more of us is about avoiding and disrupting behaviors and systems that are oppressive (hurting people’s lives and livelihoods), not just “offensive” (hurting people’s feelings). It’s not that feelings don’t matter; every person’s shame, anger, fear and pain deserve empathy and understanding. It’s just not the role of the workplace to meet all employees’ emotional needs, and feelings don’t necessarily reveal oppression.
That which is viewed as “offensive” should be heard and explored, but don’t get caught up in avoiding “offense” at the expense of dismantling oppression. That is a far more serious problem that the workplace is better equipped to address.
Susana Rinderle is president of Susana Rinderle Consulting and a trainer, coach, speaker, author and diversity & inclusion expert. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.