What CAN I say? Are my opinions insulting?

What can I say in the workplace?Good employee relations is dependent upon most of your staff getting on well with each other and their managers most of the time. We live in an imperfect world so I feel that ‘most’ is the right end goal and by ‘getting on well with’, I mean they talk to each other, laugh together, eat together, communicate well with each other, listen when listening is needed etc.

And good employee relations benefits organisations in numerous ways including profitability, productivity, quality, customer care, staff retention and sustainability. In other words, most sensible companies pay a lot of attention to achieving and maintaining good employee relations!

But what I know seriously damages good employee relations, as I’ve seen it make a lot of people unhappy, is when staff feel they can’t say what they want to say and when they feel as though each day is like tiptoeing through a verbal minefield… Can I say that? Can I ask that? How can I say that? What can’t I say? What words can’t I use? Etc.

When out socialising, how much better do we feel after someone has behaved like an ass towards us if we can then turn to them and say ‘you’re behaving like an ass’?  If we can say what we feel and ask the questions we want to ask, then life is usually so much easier and we can all move on and nothing festers.

But how in the modern world and modern workplace do we know what we can actually say when something needs to be said or if we wish to venture an opinion? Many lawyers would dissuade us from saying anything personal at all and I feel our society is slamming the door on colleague interaction as a result of people living in fear of being called a bully or something ending in ‘ist’ (racist) or ‘phobe’ (homophobe). Too many ‘ists’ and ‘phobes’ being bandied around to even begin naming them all!

Nothing worse in my book than festering resentment that results from not being allowed to say what you feel you need or want to say or that your opinion simply doesn’t matter.

So, what can we say?

Sticking my neck on the line, what I think organisations need to be clear about with their staff is what is genuinely an opinion and what is probably an ‘ist’ or ‘phobe’ type comment. Saying what your opinions or beliefs are should be absolutely fine, providing you speak with respect and of course, in turn, your colleagues listen or respond with respect.

Let’s look at a few examples….

“I am Catholic and my view is that full priesthood should not be extended to women”. This is a personal religious belief and any person is entitled to hold it and say it without fear of disciplinary action or other detriment. But what this same person could not say is “Women make useless leaders”. This comment does not relate to their religious views or present an opinion in a way that demonstrates respect.

In the same way an individual should be able to say “I voted to leave the EU” without an argument ensuing or someone viewing them as a trouble maker or insulting their intelligence. Or, in a Labour Party dominated region, ‘I vote Tory’ and, again, be able to do so without being viewed as a trouble maker or someone who is not welcome in the ‘group/team’.  In the same way people should be able to express their views on gay marriage, different religions, gender identity, the transgender debate, veganism, politics, surrogacy, and all other issues without fear of reprimand, provided they speak in a way that is not disrespectful to others.

I’m guessing at this point a fair number of you are yelling ‘nooo’ at your screens as you read. You might think this is opening up the doors for endless arguments, grievances and discrimination claims, but my starting point is that organisations interested in Diversity and Inclusion need Diversity, however it comes, in all shapes and sizes and that includes a diversity of opinions and beliefs. There is no point in employing diverse people if only a few selected people are then allowed to voice their opinions. We must create an environment that allows people to voice their opinions without fear of sanctions if diversity and inclusion is to be genuinely successful in our organisations.

I recognise that increasingly in our society people who hold different views to the majority group or what is viewed as the ‘socially accepted view’ are being closed down and not allowed to express their opinions. But this is really dangerous if you genuinely value diversity and understand how quickly good employee relations can go sour if people feel excluded or undervalued.

I run a fortnightly supper club. Over dinner we discuss a whole variety of social, political and religious issues. I have been fascinated that prior to joining the club quite a few people have asked how its possible to eat dinner with people who hold different views without the evening ending up in a shouting match. Have we all become so tribal that we now only socialise with those who are the same as us, hold the same political beliefs as us, have the same background as us etc?

Of note, in the year I have been running the club so far no one has lost their temper, no one has shouted and people are all able to express their views and be listened to. We don’t all agree, but that doesn’t mean we have to fall out. It’s about being interested in other people, it’s about having views, but not believing that our views are the only views that can be held, it’s about showing other people respect, it’s about adult discussion and debate that in turn prompts learning, understanding and at times, compromise. Discussions between people who have different views on an issue should not be a novelty, it should be the norm, but somehow we have lost our way.

A white man I know expressed his frustrations to me that HR had closed him down when he said it wasn’t fair that he was left covering a colleague’s role for one year while she went on maternity leave. He said he was told she had rights and all she’d done was assert her rights. It’s not rocket science to work out that that man felt closed down and excluded in his own workplace. No one wanted to listen to how he felt.

Other issues I have come across include: “I am curious as to whether you feel obligated to wear a hijab or whether you choose to”. This is not racist (unless of course the tone in which it is said suggests differently) and should not prompt a grievance about religious discrimination. It is perfectly acceptable to ask questions of those we work with. If we can’t ask questions to learn more about the different practices, behaviours, cultures and beliefs of those who work alongside us then we simply won’t learn. Asking genuine questions is not disrespectful and the woman in question can always respectfully reply that she doesn’t wish to answer. But of course, what is not acceptable is someone ignoring a woman simply because her headscarf makes her stand out in the group. Deliberately excluding someone is disrespectful.

Also “where are you from” has caused a few heated exchanges in recent times. I witnessed a very angry reply to this question from a man who was black. “I’m from Britain” he said. I understand his frustration, but I personally have found that many black people are very proud of their country of ethnic origin and if we can’t ask about it without being made to feel racist, then the door has slammed on a conversation, on learning  and on a relationship – before it even begins.

Most of us are interested in other people and part of that is invariably seeking to understand how we might relate to each other. Without even being conscious of it we are continually seeking ways to understand how we can connect. We probe to uncover similarities in terms of relationship status, children, education, cars, religion, holidays, sports, hobbies, region of birth etc. You can’t ask people to not ask the questions that will enable them to understand how they can relate to others. It’s what we all do, every day – whether HR says we can or not!

And if you would feel comfortable asking a white person ‘where are you from’ as you are genuinely interested to learn where they were brought up and this is a great way of showing them that you wish to ‘connect’ with them, then you should feel comfortable asking that same question of a colleague who is black or of a different ethnic origin. Yes, some might get offended, but there’s always someone going to be offended about something. But if the majority then get an opportunity to share what they love about their place of birth or their roots, then that’s great.

In the same way I am always curious about the impact of us curbing our curiosity about asking female colleagues if they have children whilst we very comfortably can have that same conversation with a man. In reality, the less we feel able to ask, the less we then relate to the person and the less comfortable we then feel with that person. Not being able to have an open discussion doesn’t encourage Inclusion as it drives us to focus on the relationships we have with those we feel most comfortable talking to and relating to, whilst avoiding those relationships that feel more like ‘hard work’.

If you are struggling to understand why as an HR professional I put relationships above the need for ‘PC’ behaviours, does it help if I tell you that around half of UK adults are employed in small and medium sized businesses, millions of them employing less than 10 people. These smaller businesses are especially aware that they need teams that function well together and that team members form good relationships with each other, including the ability to ask questions and share opinions. I might add in forming good relationships, you also learn along the way what questions NOT to ask of your colleagues or when to reel your neck in!

In contrast, I have seen a few businesses over the years that have gone down a zero banter route and you only have to ask staff in those businesses whether they enjoy working there to know that banning the personal stuff is really not the way to go if you want good employee relations and high levels of retention. And if you’re in any doubt, check out where Social Needs sits on Maslow’s pyramid and what employees are currently saying they look for in an employer.

One problem of course is that through legal cases, press coverage and certain lobby groups we have all become very sensitive and at times assume an ‘ism’ or ‘phobe’ when one simply doesn’t exist. We have sadly lost genuine free speech and the art of discussion and debate without conflict.

But the good news is that if I can run a supper club over a year without people of very different backgrounds, beliefs and views coming to blows, then the same can be achieved in the workplace. It just takes a bit of rethinking how we manage and engage with differences and what we actually need to do to genuinely achieve inclusion. As I’ve said in other blogs if the training budget could focus on things such as listening skills, good communications skills, appropriate assertiveness, developing resilience, transactional analysis understanding, emotional intelligence etc then businesses might just massively ramp up the quality of the relationships their staff have and, in turn, see staff retention go through the roof.  And that’s what’s call a win/win!

This is a personal blog written by Helen Jamieson. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Jaluch Ltd. The views and opinions posted in response to this blog are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Helen Jamieson or Jaluch Ltd. Jaluch Ltd is not responsible for the accuracy of the information within this blog.


1 reply added

  1. Julie 14 March, 2019 Reply

    What an excellent article – we need more sense in HR and less point scoring.

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