Diversity, Inclusion and the “Naïve Offender”

It is very easy in today’s complex multi-cultural world to inadvertently offend someone. (graphic from wikiHow)

When I hold a diversity and inclusion workshop with a client, early in the discussion, I ask people to think about where they may be on the “diversity spectrum” when considering this subject. I assert that people generally fall into four categories. Where are you?

Change Agent. These are the leaders on the diversity subject. They are full vocal supporters of diversity and inclusion, and are often the leaders within their organizations on this subject. They may teach workshops, are not afraid to initiate discussions with other leaders and employees, and are adroit at articulating the business case and value of diversity.

Active Supporter. These people “get it.” They understand the value and importance of diversity and inclusion and seek to grow in their knowledge. They take steps in their daily work to assure diversity and inclusion is a component.

Hopefully we can all aspire to be change agents or at least active supporters in terms of diversity and inclusion (photo from Plays-In-Business.com)

Neutral. These are people who most likely have not given the subject much thought, and simply go along with the flow in their areas. Often, they may not have been educated on this subject.

Deliberate Offender. These are people who can do quite a bit a damage within an organization. They are anti-diversity and often ostracize or criticize diverse groups or constituencies within the enterprise. They may even go as far as to spread false information and fear about others.

But in addition, there is a fifth category where even those of us who are change agents and active supporters may find ourselves from time to time – the naïve offender.

What is a naïve offender? This is a person, who on occasion, unintentionally makes an error or a misstep in terms of some aspect of diversity. Often a person may even have good intentions, but accidentally say something offensive to someone else. Frequently these missteps simply come from a lack of knowledge.

What are some examples of a naïve offender?

• Using a word or phrase that is offensive to the hearer. For example referring to sexual orientation as “sexual preference,” which is used by those people trying to perpetrate that gay people chose to be gay and can change, or an older white man, who calls all younger men “boy” addressing an African-American man as “boy,” which conjures up cultural references to slavery.

• Saying something in jest which can offend certain hearers. Examples could be taking about how you are going to party it up and drink tequila and eat tacos to celebrate Cinqo De Mayo, or making reference to nooses or chains with African Americans.

• Speaking more loudly and raising your voice to someone who does not speak English fluidly. Simply slowing down and avoiding complicated words and idioms would be helpful instead.

• Treating all Hispanics or Asians as collective groups and not appreciate that Latin America and Asia are comprised of dozens of countries with their own distinct culture.

• Unknowingly referring to a transgender person or a gender fluid person by the wrong pronoun.

Even as a diversity trainer, I make mistakes as a naïve offender. I was presenting some material that was 3-4 years old using the terms “hearing-impaired” and “sight-impaired” when those communities now prefer using the words deaf or blind. The word impaired connotes that someone has a fault or is not capable.

What should you do if someone “naively” offends you? I would think that based upon your past relationship with someone and their body language and tone of voice, you can discern if the person is making an honest mistake or is truly belligerent, e.g. a deliberate offender. If you sense the person is a naïve offender, turn it into a learning moment and graciously point out their error. Lashing out at the person or ostracizing them will not be helpful to them, nor your community.

And what are some hints and tips for the naïve offender? How can you continually improve in this area?

• When you make a misstep and realize it, immediately and sincerely apologize.
• When someone points out a diversity mistake that you made, thank them for pointing it out.
• Continue to educate yourself about diverse communities you interact with, especially those you may be less familiar with.
• Think of ways where you can grow more as an active supporter or change agent of diversity and inclusion.

May we all be gracious and continue to grow in building a world where all diversity is fully understood, respected and included.

The below closing graphic illustrates these categories of people in regards to diversity and inclusion, along with another graphic sharing that effective diversity and inclusion training needs to incorporate the mind (business logic), the heart and taking action. Read my other blog about these components of diversity and inclusion training.

Three key lessons from a diversity mishap

Photo courtesy of Fernan Balsalubre

Recently my friend and fellow adult figure skater Fernan Balsalubre provided the following disturbing account on his Facebook Page:

“It’s such a small thing nowadays, but the AM/PM (convenience store / gas station prevalent in Southern California) attendant told a gentleman in front of me to “Speak English” three times. I can’t believe this is how we greet people now!

The customer did not speak English. He was pointing at the glass display on the counter at some lottery scratchers, and saying “Two,” while handing money over. Brian, the gas station attendant, asked, “Do you want two of those?” The customer nodded his head. Brian then proceeded to say “Speak English” three times, each time getting louder and slower. The customer paid and left. He looked so embarrassed. I took his photo (yes, from the safety of the energy bar counter) and drove to Chevron.

This gas station is the closest to my dad’s stroke rehabilitation facility, so I have encountered this guy before. He’s not the nicest person. His customer service skills could use some brushing up.”

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Fernan took the time to provide this information to AM/PM headquarters and got no reply. Meanwhile several dozen people saw and commented on this account.

Perhaps the customer did not speak English. Maybe he was deaf and mute. Maybe he recently had a stroke which left his speaking ability partially incapacitated. It does not matter – this interaction is totally disrespectful and highlights three important lessons from this diversity misstep.

1) In today’s world of quickly proliferating social media, diversity mishaps can be frequently and quickly captured, and spread like wildfire. We see more and more capturing of public missteps in dealing with others via cellphones and quickly posted on various social media. It can be a matter of 30 minutes where soon millions of people are aware of some awful occurrence by a company’s or organization’s personnel.

2) All employees, not just managers and executives, need diversity and inclusion training. So many companies believe that diversity and inclusion can be addressed simply via management training. But in reality, it is often the lower-wage, non-management employees that are on the front line interacting with customers and clients.

In my blog “The Three Components of Diversity and Inclusion Training,” I wrote, “It is important that all employees within an enterprise receive diversity and inclusion training. Co-workers are most often the frequent cause of employees not feeling welcomed and becoming unhappy at work, and most often it is the non-management employees on the front lines who interact with your diverse customers.”

3) When diversity missteps occur, corporate leadership must be extremely quick to react. So often these diversity errors get captured and communicated to corporate leaders and then the matter is dropped and the person who reported the incident never contacted. Organizations, especially those with public expression for the diversity and inclusion commitments need to back up these statements with real action.

Diversity and inclusion is increasingly becoming a key strategic initiative for organizations to succeed, and mishaps in this area can so quickly undo years of hard work. Be vigilant and diligent! And thank you, Fernan, for speaking out and taking action in this situation.

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Footnote: I could not find any diversity and inclusion statements on the AM/PM corporate website, but parent company BP has a very visible and robust diversity and inclusion business strategy.