Yes, You Can be Offended

Since returning to the reality of my day-to-day after spending a week with the team in Bangkok I find myself reflecting on our culture. On what it means to be part of HelpDocs.

I’ve spent the week engrossed in it. Living nothing but the culture day-to-day with people I’ve come to know and trust more deeply than most. Certainly more than anyone I’ve ever worked with before.

What’s more, I feel I’ve played at least a small part in how the culture has evolved to be the inclusive, non-gendered safe space I know and love.

And yet here I sit reflecting after a moment of inner turmoil.

A cultural crisis that came as a side effect of hiring, interviewing, and my personal struggle with imposter syndrome.

It's funny. Most of us consider imposter syndrome to be a vocational thing. There are countless stories about managers who wrestled with it. Despite their many years experience, worried they’d be found to be a fraud.

I’ve spoken before about it here too.

But this latest bout was different for me. 'Cause it wasn’t based on my questionable professional ability, but my right to exist in the diverse workplace culture I’ve helped create.

I was conflicted. Questioning my right to be offended by people who disrespect the core principles and values that serve as our foundation. And perterbed by the unabashed manner with which people did so.

The Trials of Non-Gendered Inclusivity

I've considered culture fit for over 1100 applications over the past few weeks. So it's fair to say the HelpDocs culture is at the front of my mind.

As an extension of us as a team it’s one of the biggest concerns we have as we hire and scale. Particularly as we seek to more than double our team in a short space of time 🙈

Right now our team is made up of two theys and a solitary he (me… hi! 👋).

It wasn't something we set out to force. But our culture is deep-rooted in inclusivity and diversity. It permeates throughout everything we do. And that translates to how we communicate.

It can be a jarring experience for some to be pulled up on using non-gendered language.

I've lost count how many times I've heard

I meant that gendered phrase in the inclusive way

Hiring has opened my eyes to the struggle of non-gendered language. It isn’t the norm.

There's a constant battle against the use of collective pronouns like “guys” and "dudes" where "folks" or even plain "team" would suffice.

I've encountered endless misgendering of members of the team with candidates making assumptions based on presentation.

I've listened to candidates referring to specific genders while describing hypothetical situations in order to "make it more relatable".

Of course I get it. It's years of societal reinforcement.

But the thing is, they’re all red flags for us.

They hint that the candidate might struggle to adopt our use of language. And their response when we question them on it usually determines whether or not they continue to be a good candidate. 🤭

In this particular case, it wasn't good.

Is it my fight?

I’m absolutely a hypocrite though. I fuck up inclusive language all the time even though I know better.

I slip up. I fall back into using gendered collective nouns. I misgender my teammates as individuals or assume the gender of people I’m telling stories about.

Yes. It’s tough to undo the 32 years of reinforced gendered language. But that’s not really an excuse is it.

I should do better. I can do better. And I strive to do better. That’s our culture.

There’s never more than a second that passes before I find myself choke slammed by a sincere wave of remorse. My gut wrenches. And waves of disappointment reduce me to a guilt-ridden mess.

How could I be so thoughtless that I’d use language that could be hurtful to my HelpDocs family or, well, anyone?

Knowing that I fuck up only serves to empower my imposter syndrome. And this makes it tough when I encounter non-inclusive language in our hiring interviews.

Calling it out, or even just questioning it makes me feel like a fraud. Despite it being a huge part of the culture I’ve helped foster.

I guess I’m lucky that our hiring process is structured to weed out non-inclusive candidates. It means that any time non-inclusive language is flaunted during the interview process, it’s usually a mistake. One followed closely by boundless guilt and remorse.

That’s fine. It’s what we expect. Hell, like I said, it’s how I deal with my own slip ups 🙃

Nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes. Yesterday I was chatting with Jake and they fucked up Jarratt’s pronouns twice. And they’re both nonbinary, and married. 🤷‍♂️

Being able to admit your mistakes, own them, and make an effort to rectify them is a very HelpDocs trait. 🙌

My biggest struggle came when a candidate didn’t show any sign of remorse. And I found myself confused, reeling, and questioning my own judgement.

My biggest weakness is to assume that others go through that same process. Color me naive, but I want to believe people are generally good.

After all, nobody wants to be non-inclusive. Do they?

It’s not not my Fight!

Nobody wants to hear a white dude talk about inclusivity and diversity.

That thought runs through my head every time I talk about inclusivity. And in the midst of my struggle with a candidate, it led to a candid chat with Jake and Jarratt about who has the right to take offence.

I won’t lie, I found it difficult. Candidates use non-inclusive language all the time. But to do so without a hint of remorse threw me.

Were they really that bad a person? Or worse…were they just ignorant?

In hindsight it wasn’t the lack of remorse per se. It was a feeling of betrayal. They didn’t know they were in the wrong and instead sought to justify their intent. As if I’d misunderstood and it was my fault.

I continued, feeling the need to justify the insistence on inclusive and non-gendered language. And they responded with with a pure, nonchalant “Cool, makes sense!”.

That was it. 😳

No sincere apology.

No acknowledgement that they’d spat in the face of the culture I’d invited them into.

Was it my fault? Should I have challenged them?

Perhaps that was my first mistake.

It’s true, I didn’t challenge them. Because despite the evidence I still wanted to believe they were good people. 🤷🏻‍♂️

It was at that point my imposter syndrome really kicked in. Convincing me I was the one in the wrong. After all who the fuck am I to get offended about non-inclusive language. Me, someone who’s never had to endure social prejudice.

There’s a wonderful irony to it that I can only see with the benefit of hindsight.

In my head, it’s as if inclusivity and diversity are exclusive. Like they're taboo subjects that only people who directly suffer from such oppression on a daily basis are allowed to even talk about, let alone have an opinion on.

Sometimes I feel as if me being offended by bigotry and hatred somehow trivialises the issue for those who feel it in a much deeper and more direct way than I ever can.

I constantly find myself asking where the line between righteous offence and unjustifiable outrage exists. When the truth is, that line is an illusion.

It's Every Non-Asshole's Fight

It's times like these I'm thankful that we also have a culture of internal transparency. It meant I could be honest. I could open up and say I was struggling with how to appraoch the situation without feeling like I'd offend someone too,

And after a long, painful conversation with Jake and Jarratt I began to realise my right to take offence.

Do you think they're a bigot?

Jake's always direct with questions when it comes to non-inclusive people.

The answer was a resounding Yes. Though I still tried to justify why I wasn't challenging the person.

So do you think that language is ok?

Jake's follow up was hard hitting for me. Because I didn't think that language was ok. And they knew it.

Do you think they meant it when they said "apologies"?

The final question that really knocked it out of the park.

We have a joke internally that when someone says "apologies" it always reads as "sorry not sorry". I do it all the time. And it's a habit I've had to force myself out of.

So I knew what they were getting at.

The apology wasn't sincere. It didn't feel sincere. It was followed by a justification for their language which only served to highlight the complete lack of sincerity.

Not long after that I started to feel reaffirmed. I'd been validated. My right to be offended at the wanton disregard of our cultural values by someone who wanted to align with them had been reignited.

In hindsight I realise I have every right to take offence at anything.

Not on behalf of anyone. Not because "I have friends who are non-binary and that'd really upset them". But because non-inclusivity, misogyny and misandry, discrimination and bigotry in any form is fucking shit.

People who think it's ok are assholes. And people who stand by and watch it happen without being offended are assholes too.

So I guess the moral is, don't be an asshole! 🤷🏻‍♂️