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You can't say anything anymore, can you?

Language and Media
Corporate Reputation

Alongside headlines about certain former working members of the British royal family, few topics seem to generate clickbait interest like the culture wars generated by the so-called “woke mob” and rapidly changing social codes. While I had this in mind when I opened the recent news article by The Times about law firm Hogan Lovells’ decision to launch a “microaggressions” hotline for  anonymous staff reports of “interactional bias”,  I was nevertheless surprised by the extent of the adverse reaction to this, both within the article and in the comments section, with “woke tokenism”, “Orwellian” and “anonymous snitch line” just some of the criticisms levelled at the move.  

While I am fully prepared to be wrong, I feel reasonably confident that anyone who feels anger at the prospect of a safe process for those who have been subject to comments that have made them feel either belittled or outright bullied are probably not the people who would need to use this hotline.  

To be clear, this is a hotline for reporting perceived microaggressions, not a direct line to punishment without trial for those accused of perpetrating them, unconsciously or otherwise. 

Is it really Orwellian to suggest that individuals asked where they are “really” from – one of the examples of a microaggression cited by Hogan Lovells and technology platform, InChorus – should have access to a process that means they can raise this incident without fear of retribution or being seen as someone who is “making a fuss”? What is next? Suggesting it is Kafkaesque for a woman to complain that if she is handed the coats of male colleagues in a meeting that it is because they have assumed a woman is not capable of an executive role? 

I mention this specific example because the same day that The Times ran its article about Hogan Lovells, Bloomberg reported that Italian women battle a ‘take my coat’ culture. This is a phrase inspired by the anecdote of Cristina Schocchia, CEO of Illycaffè, that described how, when CEO of a different business, a group of male visitors arrived for a meeting and proceeded to hand her their coats, assuming she was someone’s assistant. Perhaps handing someone a coat is a harmless mistake, but perhaps it also reflects a mindset where women’s professional contributions are not highly valued. This is not to pick on Italy – I think most women will have a story, often more than one, when an assumption about their role or what is appropriate to say to a woman in a professional, or indeed any, setting has made them feel uncomfortable or undervalued – but it does indicate that if “microaggressions” aren’t addressed, they can stack up and have real-world consequences. After all, Scocchia is one of few female CEOs in Italy, with just 3.9% of firms in the country having a woman as chief executive by the end of last year, according to a Deloitte report, and she believes that gender bias and stereotypes still hamper progress for the country’s female executives. 

“You can’t say anything anymore” is a complaint I am sure that most of us will have heard at some point and probably numerous times from Piers Morgan alone. The thing I always want to know when I hear this sentiment is: what exactly do you want to say? Because the reality is that this is not a totalitarian state and all of us - you, me, Piers, a partner at Hogan Lovells – can say whatever we want. What we can’t do is assume there are no consequences to saying whatever we want. Because there are consequences. Sometimes those consequences are damaged feelings and sometimes they are damaged reputations, and, in the workplace, it can be harmful to relationships, confidence and the retention of talent.  

How we use language constantly changes and a move that helps foreground these changes and gives people the opportunity to get it right and understand the impact of their words is a good thing. And, if you really are that irate that you cannot say whatever you want without consequence or discourse on the impact of those words, then, what exactly is it you want to say?