Business communication should be clear and calm
Older workers accused of racism and being privileged by Gen Z co-workers should try to understand what their peers mean, according to two New York University professors and diversity officials.
Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, both directors at NYU’s Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and professors in the law school, want the burden on older workers when Gen Z employees use political buzzwords and language of the woke agenda.
“A lot of ink has been spilled advising young people to tamp down their rhetoric on these issues,” the pair wrote recently in Time. “Yet the dynamics that have led to these rhetorical shifts won’t disappear any time soon.”
Their argument is that instead of working with Gen Z to more clearly articulate their concerns using precise language, the accused are the ones that need to examine their own behavior.
The two self-described “diversity and inclusion scholars,” wrote:
While conversations about identity rarely involve formal performance evaluations, they constantly involve feedback on who someone is or what they’ve done—whether it’s a reference to their “privilege,” a charge that they’re “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic,” or a suggestion that something they did was offensive or harmful. If you ever find yourself in these situations, you should right-size feedback in identity conversations by making sure what you’re hearing is what your counterpart is saying.
The professors give this example:
To take a common example: Imagine a Gen Z’er reminds you of your “white privilege,” “male privilege,” or whatever forms of privilege you have. How do you interpret the word “privilege”? If you’re like many people we work with, you might hear it to suggest your life has been easy or that everything you’ve accomplished can be attributed to your group identity. Yet more often than not, the other person simply means you have advantages along certain dimensions of life (as we all do), and that those advantages have given you some boosts alongside your talents and hard work.
I agree that as a general principle we should always start by assuming the most charitable interpretation of what someone is saying. But I also believe that it is incumbent on the speaker to use precise language to articulate what they mean.
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The term “racist” has a clear and actual definition. It means someone who treats other people poorly because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity. So if Gen Z is accusing someone of racism, it is incumbent on that 24-year-old employee to literally be referring to a racist act. For example, if an older manager said he would never hire a black person or a Latino because of some stereotype about their work ethic, that would be an appropriate time to point out racism.
But note while racism is objectively wrong and can be objectively identified, calling someone “privileged” is just an observation. The fact someone grew up wealthy or is white and is perceived then as having some benefit because of it says nothing about the decisions they are making. It is like saying “You were born in Oklahoma.” It can be a factual observation but it does not tell us anything about the business decisions they are making.
I do agree with the professors that business communication skills can be lacking today. One cause may be the increase in remote work and the use of email, messaging and other digital forms of communication which make it hard to discern emotion and tone. Another reason may be the lack of good writing and English instruction in high schools and higher education.
All workers, of every generation, should strive to communicate their ideas in a clear, calm manner and acknowledge the ways their words might be misconstrued and as much as possible, self-edit to eliminate misunderstanding. One tip is to focus on the most important issue you want to communicate and propose actionable solutions. This shows the recipient you are not trying to blame anyone or cause drama, but that you see a problem and want to collaborate to fix it.
Let’s take the “privilege” example. If you are a Gen Z worker that feels your peers have certain privileges because of their race or family background, what is it you want? Do you want to degrade their hard work and accomplishments? Or do you want to have the same opportunities they have?
If it is the former, then it does seem like the use of the word “privileged” is an insult to make you feel better about your own perceived shortcomings. If it is the latter, then kindly approach an older worker without bringing up privilege and ask if he or she would mentor you because you one day want to be a manager like them or move up the ladder. It is a good thing to want to become a better employee and gain skills, but people will not want to be around you if you’re a bulldog always accusing them of having ill-gotten gains.
Workers of all generations have something to offer one another and bring different insights and experiences to organizations, but none of those talents will be put to good use if older employees are always put on the defensive because Gen Z cannot articulate what it means or wants.
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