No Offense

Acknowledging diversity and avoiding bias in company publications

Don't we all know better now? The best trained journalists in newspaper and television are in the midst of examining whether their coverage of Hillary Clinton was sexist. Fox News apologized for a headline about Michelle Obama that they probably thought was clever, but was, in fact, a slur. Entire websites are devoted to pointing out examples of stories or quotes in the mainstream press that show prejudice, intolerance or reinforce stereotypes. This happens at large media companies, so it can certainly happen at small, non-media companies. Nobody deliberately injects bias in a company publication or website, but it can slip in unintentionally and hurt or anger readers.

If it's unintentional, how do you stop it? By looking for it. Examine your newsletter or website. Does it reflect the diversity of your company and its customers? Read over profiles to see if prejudicial assumptions were made. Is a woman's haircut or outfit noted where a man's is not? Is an African-American described as articulate or well-spoken? If a person's ethnicity, religion or lifestyle choice is discussed or ignored, why was that choice made? Get a few brutally honest people to read the copy and ask them if any biases jump out at them.

What is the biggest trouble area? Attempts at humor can easily trip over the sensitivities line. In the entertainment world, jokes that were once off-limits are part of the mainstream. We may kid around about religion, women and men or ethnicity with colleagues, and even make fun of the stereotypes attached to our own background. But the joking and understanding that we share with good friends doesn't translate to professional contacts or customers, and it never transfers into print. It doesn't matter if you smile when you wrote it, repeating a stereotype will likely upset someone you don't want to offend.

What about when religion, race or gender are part of this story? That's when you really have to be careful. Overly formal writing can give an impression of bias, because its stiff tone implies distance from the subject — “us” talking about “them.” This can be a real danger when discussing overseas offices, diversity programs or marketing a product to specific groups. Make every effort to include comments from the individual or group being covered to reduce the risk of sounding patronizing. Never make a stereotype the focus of the story, even in order to shatter it. (Example: Not only is Sally Doe succeeding as an auto mechanic, she's pretty too!)