Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The perils of PC-ness

In my previous life, the holiday season was always a bit of a perilous time of year. It was my responsibility to write a year-end message from company leaders to their employees.

For the most part, the leaders were mindful of the diversity of the workforce, given it was a multinational company. We worked so hard to address the non-American employee population, in fact, that US employees would complain at times.

Myself, I generally enjoy learning about different cultures and presenting things in new ways, so it wasn't all that difficult for me to adapt. As a communications consultant, I appreciated that I didn't have to constantly reinforce the need to recognize that our workforce included people with different traditions, points of view, belief systems and orientations. There were times, however, when it would reach ridiculous proportions. I'd wonder where the line was between being sensitive and doing back flips to avoid offending one cranky person who likely would find something to complain about, no matter what we did.

The holiday message brought all of that to a head.

It goes without saying that we couldn't say "Merry Christmas," given a sizeable non-Christian population. If we started listing all of the holidays that our employees might celebrate, the roster would get pretty long and we'd be in danger of missing one and inadvertently creating a rift.

"Happy New Year" sounds as if it would fit the bill, yes? Not so fast! We had a small staff in China, and they'd be celebrating the Lunar New Year in late January or early February. It's a massive event, with Chinese from all over the world converging to reunite with their families to celebrate Gung Hei Fat Choy! So, happy new year was out, though we did have to acknowledge it somehow.

Oh, and there was also the family issue: no doubt those without spouses or children would be unhappy if we told them to enjoy the holidays with their families.

There was one thing that wouldn't be culturally fraught: the company essentially shut down between Christmas and New Year's as a cost-saving measure. But that was emotionally charged. Some employees would still be working to handle customer issues that came up during the holidays.

After taking all of that into consideration, I'd come up with something like this:

"At this time of year, we like to send good wishes to all employees. No matter what you celebrate (or when), we hope you enjoy it with whoever you're spending time with. Enjoy your time off, but even if you have to work and serve our customers (and thank you so much for doing that so well), try to relax and spend time with those you love, feel ambivalent about, or have to tolerate."

Then I'd have to find four different ways of presenting essentially the same message, because I worked for four executives who wanted to send greetings out.

One of the execs would invariably ignore what I wrote for him and send out his own message, which usually read something like this:

"Thanks for a great year. Merry Christmas to you and your family."

I still get PTSD at this time of year, just from thinking about all this mishigas.

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