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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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News: Fear of causing offence damaging inclusion efforts, warns research


Fear of causing offence to colleagues by saying something politically incorrect can damage working relationships and actually hamper attempts at inclusion, research has found.

The study undertaken by the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion on behalf of BT revealed that both managers and employees were often anxious about having conversations with others if they involved talking about the differences between them. Such differences included gender, race, religion, sexuality and body weight.
The problem was that concern over saying the wrong thing led to managers in particular trying to treat everyone the same way. Such worries also generated a lack of openness that, in turn, had a damaging effect on working relationships, not least because the situation tended to inhibit the creation of more informal bonds.
Dan Robertson, enei’s diversity and inclusion director, said: “We have known for some time that making people anxious about what they can ask their colleagues actually increases the chances of any biases playing out as behaviour in the workplace.”
The research revealed that fear of saying the wrong thing left people not only “confused and anxious”, but also created “social distance” between them and others, he explained.
But because “the closeness of working relationships between managers and their staff predicts employee performance”, such a scenario was problematic, Robertson warned.
The study also showed that both managers and their staff frequently had a ‘bias blind spot’, in which they assumed that they treated everyone the same, but were in fact favouring those who looked or sounded most like them.
As a result, managers tended to develop better informal relationships with employees who were similar to themselves and provided more effective ‘sponsorship’ to help them get on in their careers.
Nonetheless, understanding the nature of difference could act as a positive counterweight.
"It seems we can have biases, but that they tend to be most active when people see themselves as different from each other. Where people have found common ground, for example, common life experiences, work goals or values, then bias didn’t damage the relationship," Robertson said.
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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

Read more from Cath Everett

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