The case of Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher convicted and pardoned in Sudan for insulting religion has caused debate about what does cause offence, and the intent behind it.
Cases like the trainee Santa’s in Adelaide warned not to say Ho Ho Ho to avoid offending women tend to make headlines as ‘Political Correctness Gone Mad’. Yet there’s a world of difference between deliberately being offensive, accidentally causing offence, and slow news day stories such as replacing Christmas with Winterval. People who want to celebrate Christmas, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Three Kings’ Day want to do so because it has a personal and cultural significance for them which can’t be replaced by a synthetic holiday designed not to cause offence to anyone.
Over cautious rulings can cause confusion and resentment in the workplace where employees are so worried that someone will take offence or take out a grievance against them that they worry about saying anything at all. This gets to be a problem where organisations start to treat people unfairly to avoid causing offense, or to avoid risking a discrimination claim.
Discussing issues such as race, sex, religion, health, orientation, family commitments and dress sense can fill people with fear, but in order to have a fair, healthy, diverse and happy workplace these real issues need real consideration. Avoiding them altogether is a recipe for causing the offence and unfair discrimination people aim to avoid.
In order to create a workplace where people feel equally valued and respected, having an open and honest discussion about diversity, language and discrimination is critical. When someone wishes you a happy, or indeed, merry Christmas this year go ahead ad thank them for their wishes, and “and the same to you” if you’d like to, or even “happy holidays” if you feel more comfortable with that, unless you’d rather they had a miserable break in which case, it really is better to say nothing at all.