When tolerance is not a platitude

Rose Scott
November 7, 2018

It’s International Day For Tolerance on 16th November. Who knew that? It’s not one of the well-known global events like Earth Day, International Women’s Day or World AIDS Day.

It may not be one of the United Nations’ most notable celebrations, but the concept of ‘tolerance’ has a special resonance in these times. It’s worth taking a moment to consider its dimensions, its difficulties and its rewards.

“Tolerance is an act of humanity, which we must nurture and enact each in own lives every day, to rejoice in the diversity that makes us strong and the values that bring us together.”
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay

These are strong words from Director-General Azoulay – do they resonate with you, or do they sound like mere platitudes? Rejoicing and coming together sounds fine, but I think most of us find the realities of this, particularly in the workplace, tricky and demanding. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario One – Diwali

  • I have an office-based job where, even though there are lots of people obviously not from Australian backgrounds, I am the only person who was born in India. I am conscious that company management – all of them with long-standing Australian backgrounds – has been earnestly trying to embrace diversity and inclusion as part of their corporate values.  It’s early November and one of the nice women in Communications has sent out a colourful email to all staff wishing us a Happy Diwali. Staff at nearby desks swivel around to me and say, “that’s nice,” and, “Happy Diwali”. Angela pops out from Comms and gives me a thumbs up. The thing is, I have a Muslim background, a distinction no-one I work with appears to have picked up. Nevertheless, I appreciate the innocence and goodwill of the all-staff email, so I send one back to Angela saying “and a happy Diwali to you”. I figure that one day I’ll find the right opportunity to educate colleagues about Hindu and Muslim celebrations.

Scenario Two – Hippy Mum

  • I was a scholarship kid, a whizz at school, who ended up recruited from university by one of the major consulting firms. My colleagues, most of whom I like, seem to have been uniformly harvested from the best families in the best suburbs and from a cache of the best private schools. We work on government contracts to analyse welfare programs and I am audience to regular jokes about the horrors of having to visit offices in Ardeer or Maryborough, places they would never otherwise have encountered. Single mothers with children from multiple fathers are the subject of smug derision. The thing is, my mum is a bush hippy who has never had a paid job. My two brothers and I have two different dads and we are friends with both of them. All this workplace jocularity makes me very uncomfortable, but the right time to say something never seems to happen until, during a team meeting, the jokes become so harsh, I awkwardly announce, “You really could be talking about my mum right now except I want you to know that she’s a great parent.” Silence descends. After the meeting, my team leader apologises to me personally for letting such stereotyping occur and promises she’ll do her best to prevent it in future. She tells me about her brother in prison.

Scenario Three – Footprints

  • I am an accountant, recently arrived in Australia from Johor in Malaysia. I have a job as an accounts clerk for a large corporation based in Melbourne. Hushed conversations I’ve overheard in the lunchroom have led me to suspect that many of the staff, who are mainly Anglo, think that someone is standing to squat on the seat of the staff toilet. I have used squat toilets all my life, but I know how to use a European toilet (uncomfortable though they be). Nevertheless, I gather everyone is assuming that I am the one who is marking the toilet seat with my shoes on a regular basis. This angers me, not just because of the assumption, but also because I find the extreme germ-phobia of many long-term Australians ludicrous and annoying. After a while,  a sign appears on the back of the toilet door, and a dispenser for tissue paper covers for the toilet seat is installed. The issue dies down as a topic for lunchroom discussion. I’m still angry about the assumptions that were made about me but, all things considered, I am relieved this has been dropped from the office gossip agenda.

Think about a time you or someone you know has been misunderstood in a workplace. What helped? What didn’t? Would a more evolved culture of tolerance and understanding have made things easier?

How to Promote Tolerance

“A platitude is a trite, meaningless, or prosaic statement, often used as a thought-terminating cliché, aimed at quelling social, emotional, or cognitive unease. Platitudes have been criticized as giving a false impression of wisdom, making it easy to accept falsehoods”

Platitudes can never embrace all the complexities of life. At work, however, it is essential to set enforceable standards of behaviour, and these standards will often have an aspirational, possibly platitudinous, flavour.

If you have not done so recently, have a look at your company’s published Values, policies and Code of Conduct.

Do they collectively articulate standards that assist and encourage people to think again, keep an open mind, and be flexible to include the differences of others? If they don’t, it’s time they were revised.

The existence of written corporate values may seem marginal to the realities of daily work, but they prove their worth when trouble strikes, accountability is needed or staff just need a way to start an important conversation. More than that, there is virtue in articulating the things that make working together possible, equitable and even joyous.

Tips for Tolerance

Here are our top tips for keeping yourself in a tolerant state at work.

  1. Open your mind and question your assumptions. Acknowledge that people you find mystifying might have something to teach you. Start with an assumption of the good in others – the person who is most ham-fisted about your points of difference may be trying their best.
  2. Know when to turn down your personal ‘take-offence’ thermostat and ride out some of the inevitable annoyance of working with other people.
  3. Summon the courage to speak up when differences, frictions or misunderstandings at work cross a boundary. Some behaviours are, by law, intolerable in the workplace: bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and victimisation.
  4. Above all, value kindness. Seek it out and give it out. Kindness is the foundation that allows a tolerant workplace culture to flourish (apologies if a platitude just slipped out!).

About Rose Scott

As manager of Worklogic’s Integrity Line service, Rose Scott ensures that people making a workplace complaint are given a calm and secure reception. She also leads Worklogic’s policy development team, helping organisations set the standard for ethical and constructive behaviour at work. Please contact us for an obligation-free, confidential discussion to review and refresh the policies at your workplace.

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