The Outsider: PC madness

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Political correctness is getting to the stage where it's harming the careers of minorities in the City and elsewhere, says David Charters.

Q: When is a joke not a joke?

A: When it can cause offence (real or imagined) and justify a six-figure claim for compensation.

We live in a strange world. It is a world where investment banks send teams away for expensive bonding weekends and encourage them to take part in activities that break down barriers and create a team spirit, yet in the next breath impose restrictions on all forms of interpersonal conduct to protect themselves from the legal fallout of anyone ever causing any kind of offence to anyone else.

If it sounds like self-contradictory madness, welcome to the City of London in the 21st century. I'm old enough (just) to remember the pre-Big Bang days before it was possible to circulate email jokes (we didn't have email then), when drinking at lunchtimes was still permitted, at least on Fridays, relationships in the office were not unusual, everyone thought PC stood for Police Constable, and the customary arbiter of what constituted appropriate behaviour between colleagues could be summed up as the 'three Cs' - courtesy, compassion and common sense.

It's true that there were incidents then when people overstepped the mark - one drink too many at the Christmas Party led to a few careers hitting major roadblocks - but much of the time we got by without feeling the need for employment lawyers or diversity consultants.

Today things are different. Mailsweeper programmes monitor our emails for profanity (swear words to you and me), compulsory diversity training is accepted without a murmur by people who are otherwise confident and robust enough not to be patronised in their working lives, and sanitised humour and officially orchestrated fun are the order of the day.

The question is does it actually help anyone? Clearly the people who make their living by exploiting the climate of the times - not least the lawyers - are prospering.

But at the margin has it improved opportunities for women and minorities to reach the top of their profession? In my view not. Competition does that. The City needs to access the biggest, broadest talent pool it can, not to be politically correct, but to be successful.

At the margin, it probably adds an additional, unspoken burden to women and minorities applying for high pressure roles in environments where people don't necessarily behave at their best when the stress gets too great. If two candidates are equally talented and experienced, and one comes without potential legal baggage, there's always a reason to go for the easy option. So it probably means the minority candidates have to be even better to succeed, and the 'help and support' of the additional protections offered to them have backfired.

The genie is out of the bottle, and we won't turn the clock back. But maybe we should insist in future that all diversity training starts with the three Cs - if we can get that bit right, perhaps the rest won't be needed.

David Charters' latest book, The Ego Has Landed, is published by Elliott and Thompson, price 9.99.

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