BEYOND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

by: Issues: March / April 2000. Tags: Strategy. Categories: Strategy.

Too many people just don’t get it.

Back in January, it was almost impossible to escape the screaming headlines that announced the firings of Thomas Haythe of Tory Haythe and CTV news anchor Avery Haines. The offences were different, but I could not help but notice the similarity in the underlying motivation of both transgressions. Both occurred without thought and appropriate introspection. Both also speak to the callous disregard for others that is at the core of what we attempt to address in the field of diversity. To say that both situations demonstrate each individual’s lack of understanding of the issues would be an understatement.

Mr. Haythe’s firing came the day after the merger of the New York firm of Haythe & Curley and Toronto’s Tory Tory Deslauriers & Binnington was signed, a deal that some called one of the most powerful strategic legal alliances in North America. Mr. Haythe’s firing sent shock waves through the legal and business communities in Toronto and New York. Several people expressed shock and dismay that something of this nature could still occur, leaving me to reflect on the situation. Unlike the case of Avery Haines, which was plastered in every possible media outlet, the exact behaviour that led to Mr. Haythe’s ouster has not been publicly disclosed, except that it was “of a sexual nature.” I do not want to add my comments to the moral debate on the inappropriate behaviour of Thomas Haythe’s unwanted sexual display, or Ms. Haines’ glib, derisive comments about minority groups. Rather, I’d like to reflect on the role that changes in society played in the firings of both individuals.

The question is not “How could this happen?” but rather, “Why did each get fired for what they did?” What changes have caused such drastic consequences for both Ms. Haines and Mr. Haythe? Dare I hope that the diversity message is getting through? What this speaks to is a shift in what society has come to view as acceptable behaviour. It signals an awakening to the fact that we must develop a greater respect for and sensitivity to how our word and actions can affect others. That awakening is occurring against a backdrop of increasing globalization, which highlight our reliance on the contributions of each member of society. What was acceptable 20 or even 10 years ago will no longer be tolerated today. That is good news.

A number of significant events spurred the transition. When Anita Hill lost in her efforts to make Clarence Thomas—the Reagan candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court—accountable for his behaviour, she could hardly have realized the significance of her contribution. She moved the issue of sexual harassment into the public domain and made it open to debate.

Though she lost the battle, Anita Hill was extremely instrumental in advancing the war against sexual harassment. By courageously stepping forward and taking a stand, Hill in fact created a significant level of awareness and debate that would ultimately become a catalyst for meaningful change. Only when something becomes debatable does it stand a chance of engendering change, or even triggering it. That change could only take place if there is a greater understanding of what sexual harassment is and is not. I have never brought into the jargon of the legal profession, so it is with some degree of reticence that I proffer their characterization of what sexual harassment truly is—“a crime of power and not a crime of passion.”

The fiasco of President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky also serves as a benchmark for tolerance. Gone from the media is the so-called respectful silence on such behaviour. Bill Clinton greatly admired John F. Kennedy, but in emulating JFK, he did not account for the fact that “the times they are a-changin.” Even the actions of presidents have become open to scrutiny. Through he was not fired for his actions, Bill Clinton’s legacy will forever be scandal and impeachment.

It would be missing the point and even cynical to say that CTV’s and Tory Haythe’s actions were displays of political correctness or not, we must look at what ultimately determines that political correctness: society and what it is willing to tolerate.

For many years companies have paid lip service to the mantra that “our people are our most valued resource.” Today, business is being forced to realize that their people are important. Organizations have responded to societal pressures during each of the last four decades. Those societal pressures are at work again, forcing a shift from the age of equality (where differences are ignored), to the age of equity (where differences are valued and respected). The actions of CTV and Tory Haythe merely demonstrate that issues of equity are becoming relevant factors in business. Understanding and responding to these issues requires a level of consciousness that goes well beyond political correctness.

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