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In what seems to be a standing item in our News media of late, a politician’s personal comment about a political aspirant has been the cause for much argument. Tony Abbott, who was campaigning to be elected Australia’s next Prime Minister, introduced a local candidate as “young, feisty” and with “sex appeal”.

And the so-called “debate” began! 

Was this comment sexist?  Was this a compliment?  Men and woman on “both” sides of Politics were trotted out to claim that it was sexist (if they were on the opposite side of politics to Tony), or that it was a compliment, if they were on Tony’s side.

I listened and watched and mostly rolled my eyes, as clearly no one was seriously trying to make any sense out of the issue. I felt no need to add anything to the tired old cliches. That was, until our greatest political has-been Mark Latham, added his wisdom to the “debate”.  He declared that the woman in question was not “attractive” and that Tony “must have had his beer goggles on” to make such a complimentary statement about her.

And quite simply folks, that is why we do not comment on a person’s sex appeal in the workplace – and Tony, this was your workplace, and hers.

An opinion on the sexual appeal of anyone will always be subjective- and as any trashy gossip magazine will demonstrate, the moment you assess someone’s appearance, you inevitably invite a rush of conflicting critiques.

When such statements are made in the workplace, you have changed the focus of the assessment of the employee from their abilities and experience, to their sexual attractiveness.  For any employee, this is simply not fair.  This candidate has the same right as any other candidate to be judged for her ability to do the job.  Nothing more, nothing less.

But the arguments in the media simply revolved around whether or not this was “political correctness gone mad” and/or bemoaning the fact that it is not possible to compliment a “pretty” woman any more.

But that really is not the issue.  The issue is that these comments create an unnecessary distraction which takes attention away from what is actually important.  This woman was stripped of her right to be assessed on her ability. Only time will tell if she gets that back.

In the workplace, when I provide training in Anti Discrimination laws, I try to explain these concepts from the point of view of the people who may be harmed, without alienating people who are convinced the laws are designed to prevent them from having an opinion.  My focus is always on helping people to understand that any one of us are capable of saying or doing something which could be misinterpreted.  I doubt any one of us could claim never to have said something we later wish we hadn’t.

We all have different life experiences, we all have different belief systems.  And then we all go off and work in a big mixed up melting pot.  Sometimes we will get it wrong.  When we do we have a choice: Do we go around and ask everyone else whether they would have been flattered or appalled?  Or do we simply remove our foot from our mouth and apologise?  It is a choice.

I for one, am happy to accept that “Political Correctness” is simply the 21st century’s version of “manners”.  It helps us to understand how something that we might feel is reasonable, might actually upset someone else, or even cause them harm.  Personally, I find these rules much more useful than the manners I was taught as a child – which seemed to be designed so that we could humiliate others who hadn’t been taught them!

Of course, navigating this issue is not always as simple as that.  I have investigated issues that have been much more serious than silly gaffes, and have caused immense pain and distress to the victims. This is what the legislations aims to prevent.  But throw away statements made by people of influence, can certainly bolster people who truly do treat others unfairly, to feel justified.

What we need from our Leaders, in business and in politics, is demonstrated commitment to fairness and equity for everyone.  In business, and in politics, if what you are about to say is not an objective assessment of ability, then don’t say it.  I realise that is particularly hard for politicians because they are trained in the “art” of insulting the other side – but perhaps the insults should be objective to0!

It truly does not matter what your personal opinions or feelings are, when you are at work – you have no right to impose them on other people. Tony may truly believe that the most important qualifications a woman possesses are her youth and her sexual appeal. However in the workplace these factors are irrelevant.  At work every single person has the absolute right to be judged only on their actual performance on the job.

Of course, Tony may not actually feel that sex appeal and youth are critical attributes for a woman to succeed; he may genuinely ignore these characteristics when he makes decisions on who he will employ.  However, by making such a statement, he does leave himself open for others to question his objectivity.

If this matter was being investigated in the workplace, what Tony actually said, and any previous examples of his behaviour and words, would be taken into consideration before making an assessment of whether or not his behaviour was appropriate.  Based on his previous actions and words, Mr Abbott would be at the very least, required to attend some training so that he might understand why what he said was likely to cause offence!

In your private life of course, you are free to behave and speak  and discriminate in whatever manner you choose.  Anti discrimination law is not about changing your personal beliefs, it is about making sure that in the workplace, your personal beliefs do not prejudice your workplace behaviour.

In any workplace, it is not wise to provide people with the opportunity to question your motives.  If you employ people on merit, if you judge them on merit, and you don’t want to be accused of doing otherwise, then do not make comments about their appearance or youth (or religion, or ethnicity or sexual orientation).  It really can be that simple.