The world of work is becoming more confusing, as new terms enter the language every day – and we increasingly become confused over what we can and cannot say. Is it protecting the vulnerable? Or is the ‘new language’ hampering effective communication at work?  

By Mark Richards.

It is Monday morning, so what better way to start the week than with a quiz. Here are a collection of politically-correct (I think) terms. No cheating – how many of them could you explain?

Mansplaining, straightsplaining, whitesplaining, fat-shaming, body-shaming, ableist, transphobic, trigger warnings, safe space, cry bully, social justice warrior, snowflake, virtue-signalling and, lastly, gammon.

Even if we do not know the words, most of us would be able to make an intelligent guess at what they meant. But if you have not yet come across ‘gammon,’ the latest entry on the list, it means an older, white, right-wing male who is going red in the face, usually over the latest outbreak of political correctness.

Interestingly, my spellchecker in Microsoft Word did not highlight any of those words – so at least there are no problems with modern workplace terminology at 1 Microsoft Way, in Redmond, a few miles to the east of Seattle.

Or, in fact, there might be…

Last week it was reported the more than 100 staff at Microsoft had signed a letter calling on the company to stop working with the US Border Patrol, after the widespread criticism of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families at the Mexican border.

The letter was posted on an internal bulletin board at Microsoft, with chief executive Satya Nadella responding by saying that he was “appalled at the abhorrent policy of separating immigrant families from their children.”

With Microsoft staff saying that they “refused to be complicit in such a policy,” Nadella replied that Microsoft “stood for change” and “was not working on any projects related to separating children from their families.”

While those statements are equally interesting for what Nadella did not say, what we have here is a group of employees taking an ethical stand against what they perceive as an employer’s clients.

Sorry, a textbook…

Victimhood Culture and What We Cannot Say At Work Anymore

At first glance, these two stories are not related. My inspiration for the first point came from reading about a new book by two US sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars.

Its main argument is simple: that ‘honour culture’ – where men, in particular, were easily provoked by insults and remedied the perceived sleight by fighting or declaring war – gave way to ‘dignity culture,’ in which people were encouraged to ignore perceived verbal insults. Put more simply, the ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ that my generation was encouraged to chant non-stop as children.

In ‘dignity culture,’ the writers argue, we ignored perceived insults and relied on the state to protect us from the ’sticks and stones’ of physical assaults.

But now, they suggest, we have ‘victimhood culture,’ where we are once again responding to what we perceive as insults but want a higher power – the state, the university authorities, our employers – to take action on our behalf.

…And that, I think, is where the two stories are related. Because as you go to work this Monday morning, the office/factory/shop is becoming a very complicated place – for both employers and employees.

“I wouldn’t want to be dating…”

It is something my friends and I frequently say to each other. It is said as a joke, but it has a serious undercurrent. My generation – and yes, a few of my friends could probably be described as gammons – has simply no idea what we are and are not allowed to say any more. That is not a problem when we are chatting in the pub: transfer it into the workplace and it does become a problem – and not just for our generation.

What is the most important tool in building a successful business – which in turn benefits all of us through higher earnings and higher taxes paid to the government? I would argue that it is communication – the ability to effectively explain the company’s vision and direction, and effectively get across the daily steps needed to achieve that vision.

But if you do not know what you can and cannot say, that communication becomes almost impossible.

The rise of ‘employee power’ at Microsoft

Microsoft employs between 30,000 and 40,000 people at their Redmond HQ. So on the face of it, 100 people signing a letter is an insignificant percentage. But we live in the age of social media and reputational damage: 100 people signing a petition very quickly gets worldwide traction. The company was forced to react, and react quickly.

So is the vision of the business now only OK if it meets the ethical demands of the employees? Do all your customers now need to be vetted not just for their ability to pay, but for their commitment to the social values the staff have approved?

People are more likely to make their feelings known

Over the weekend, there were widespread reports of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, being thrown out of a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia because she works for Donald Trump.

Restaurant co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson had no regrets about her decision. She believes the Trump administration is “unethical” and added, “There are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one of them.”

…Which brings us back full-circle. One person’s conviction is someone else’s everyday life. One person’s perceived insult is someone else’s everyday conversation.

I am not making an argument for or against either side here. I am not saying one side is right and one side is wrong. I am simply saying that these three stories – a new book, unrest at Microsoft and an incident in a restaurant – may well indicate the way the world of work is moving. That we are increasingly going to be wary of communicating and distrustful of employers, employees and even our colleagues.

But there is always a silver lining. It is certainly good news for HR professionals, who are going to find themselves in high demand as more and more companies realise they need ‘a policy’ and someone to administer that policy. For the rest of us, it may simply become more and more confusing – which cannot be a good thing for our personal happiness or the businesses and organisations we work for.