The Dumbing Down of the Workplace

Last Updated Oct 7, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

If you're not pushing the envelope, you're not going to get anywhere. If you're not "wiping out" from time to time, you're not learning anything. That goes for everything in life, including business. That's a premise you can take to the bank.

If you know anything about the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Michael Dell, or Larry Ellison, you know they haven't always been congenial and pleasant to be around, especially earlier in their careers. There's a learning curve for everybody.

But these days I'm worried. Worried and concerned. I'm concerned that we've become so politically correct that there's no room for the learning curve. I'm afraid that we're dumbing down the workplace to the point where folks can no longer push the envelope. I'm concerned that it's affecting our ability to operate and innovate at peak levels. Here's the problem:
In 1964 congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Three years later came the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), followed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This litany of legislation proves that politicians can actually get things done when they put their minds to it. The result is we've made great strides toward putting an end to job discrimination and sexual harassment.

But lately something seems to have gone terribly wrong. Lately, I think we've lost our way.

These days, treating fellow employees like anything but mindless drones with the anatomy of Ken and Barbie Dolls can be considered a hostile work environment. Telling someone he or she looks nice in an outfit or telling an anecdote or joke that someone may find offensive can get you sued or fired.

You know this stuff can be pretty subjective. If 20 people think something's cool but one person finds it offensive, what do you do? Fire the offender for inadvertently brushing up against someone's thin skin? And who gets to make that determination? Risk averse corporate executives, of course.

It's a slippery slope, and it gets more and more slippery all the time.

How about this? If you date a fellow employee you open yourself up to all kinds of accusations and retaliation. And, if you even talk to someone who has accused you of doing something untoward - the constitutional right to face your accuser - whether it's true or not, that's considered retaliatory behavior. That's taboo too.

What started as creating equality and ending harassment in the workplace has turned into political correctness gone wild. Not to imply that we should be telling grossly offensive jokes and propositioning employees; I just think the pendulum has swung too far and it's still swinging.

The result is that everyone's afraid to say or do anything for fear of offending someone and losing his or her job. Where does it all end? Are we doomed to dumbing down the workplace - or worse still, our entire society - to the least common denominator lest we offend a few thin-skinned whiners?

You're all out there in the workplace every day. Is it getting too PC out there? Is it affecting your ability to manage, to innovate, to be competitive? Should we be concerned or not?