September 3, 2019
When it comes to your actions and words in the office, a core tenet of diversity competence is understanding intent vs. impact.
Let’s say you make a joke at work. Maybe you say a colleague’s name in a joking way, or you imitate a colleague’s accent. You come to find that some of your colleagues—who you thought you were playfully teasing—were offended.
Maybe it’s not clear to you why they found the joke hurtful, and maybe some of them actually laughed along. Maybe your first reaction was to roll your eyes and dismiss them as “too sensitive” or “politically correct.”
The thing is, jokes often depend on cultural norms that may not resonate with everyone—not to mention, many jokes are laced with stereotypes that seem funny to a certain crowd but may be just plain painful to another group.
Even if your colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds seemed cool with it at the time, a joke poking fun at their identity group—especially if it’s a marginalized or stigmatized group—can make them feel like they’ve been reduced to a stereotype or that the history of oppression they or their loved ones have faced is being reinforced.
Of course, you didn’t intend to make anyone feel uncomfortable. It was just a joke! But in a diverse workplace, the actions and words you choose can take on different meanings than you intended—and it’s your impact, not your intent, that matters more.
When you find yourself responding, “I didn’t intend to hurt anyone,” shift your perspective to the person you offended. Have you considered what your impact on this person might've been? Could your joke have reinforced painful stereotypes or called up histories of exploitation and oppression?
When you focus on the impact you have on others, you demonstrate a willingness to take stock of your actions and how they affect others. You encourage a sense of belongingness office-wide, which in turn reduces stress and increases emotional well-being and performance— especially for team members at risk of being excluded due to their identity group membership.
As your workplace becomes more diverse and you and your colleagues become more diversity-competent, you’ll likely become more familiar with your diverse colleagues’ experiences—and therefore less likely to gravitate toward stereotypes and tell jokes that offend in the first place.
This post is part of a series addressed to HR and other hiring managers about integrating diversity competence into each step of the employment lifecycle, from recruitment and hiring, to creating an inclusive workplace, to evaluating and cultivating leaders who will take inclusive excellence at your enterprise to the next level.