#Diabetesonaplate – When employees get it wrong

Paul Hollywood, judge on Channel 4’s Great British Bake Off made a joke which referred to a plate of Chelsea buns being “Diabetes on a plate”.  Given he made the remark on TV, Twitter instantly came to life with people pointing out the inappropriateness of the comment. 

Great British Bake off doesn’t go out live, which means not only did Paul Hollywood make what he referred to as a “thoughtless” remark but also none of the production team thought to edit it out. Ignoring for a minute the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity and that as someone who hasn’t been watching this series I’m now aware of it. Most businesses are not in a position to capitalise on “thoughtless” remarks.  

It reminds me of a time early on in my career as a Manager when I used a term I now know to be offensive.  It was a term I’m not going to repeat here, but growing up it had been commonly used and it was simply a lack of education that meant it didn’t occur to me the term was inappropriate. I was fortunate, my staff member, who had every right to be offended, simply told me there and then what I’d said was wrong.  I was mortified to have offended, and felt guilty at my lack of awareness. 

Whilst mortified and deeply sorry for the offensive caused, I was also pleased my staff member could quickly point out my error.  I was able to instantly apologise, be educated and we moved on. I’m not even sure if that staff member would remember the exchange or the impact on me that I recall it nearly 15 years later. 

We are increasingly aware of the language we use and the potential to offend, the rubbish we were taught at school about sticks and stones we know to be untrue. Whilst the awareness increases, we still remain limited by our own knowledge and experience which will give rise to errors like the one both I and Paul Hollywood made.  

Employers often worry about diversity and discrimination, worrying about the risks of employment tribunals and how to deal with accusations of offence.  In my situation, had my staff member not been so confident to point out my error to me the outcome could have been very different. They would have had the option to raise a formal grievance or potentially not believed a grievance to be worthwhile and left the company.  

Mistakes will happen, whilst we can legislate for deliberate offence but we cannot legislate for mistakes. We can however have a culture where people feel they can be open and say what they think.  My staff felt safe to point out to me I was wrong, for that I am very pleased. You company culture should allow people to speak up, accept when they have made a mistake and move on. They will only do this if they feel safe.  

Equally, the next step must be available and be trusted.  Had I not apologised and allowed myself to be educated my staff would have had every right to have raised a grievance. When we’re faced with a member of staff raising a concern around offence being caused this must be dealt with promptly and take into account the circumstances.  There is a complete difference between someone who is mortified and apologetic to someone making remarks like “it was only a joke” and “they’re too sensitive”or worse. The former will learn and is unlikely to cause you a problem again, the later will do it again and will put your business at risk.  How you deal with these people must be different.  

Your culture and the people involved will impact whether someone responds directly when the offence is caused or decides to report it to someone else. Their trust in the person who caused the offence and possibly their initial judgement of motive, the nature of the offence caused and the individuals past experience with offence, bullying or abuse.  

I have seen policies which state the individual must first speak to the person causing the offence. Whilst in my case, that was exactly what was needed, in many others it’s not appropriate and individuals must not be penalised for raising situations formally rather than trying to deal with someone informally when they are not comfortable.  

If you’re employing people, someone will, at some point say the wrong thing to the wrong person. We can’t prevent it, we can create a culture that enables people to speak up, we can create trust that issues will be resolved.  

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