The concept of "intention and perception" and the related issue of "context" is one which has been brought to the forefront of debate recently by the Luis Suarez affair. For those who missed it, Suarez is a Uruguayan footballer playing for Liverpool, who was accused of racially abusing Patrice Evra, a French player for Manchester United. Suarez admitted describing Evra as a "negrito" but argued unsuccessfully that in Uruguay the term did not carry the racially charged overtones that it does in Europe (or the USA). His intention was not to be racist - however Evra perceived the comment as racist, the football authorities agreed and banned him for 8 matches.

A similar incident occurred in the social media world this week. US HR blogger Laurie Ruettimann received a tweet from a follower who she didn't know and had never met, which started with the words "Hey Beautiful". She found this over- familiar, offensive and sexist (her response blog is somewhat blunter). The follower responded by saying that "Beautiful" was simply a common greeting term in his part of the USA and he hadn't intended to be sexist. Nevertheless, it was her perception that counted and she found his comment offensive.

As another example, it is apparently ok in the US to use the term "Spazz" as a general term of abuse (I've even seen it used in TV series like "Buffy").  Use the word in the UK however and you will get a similar reaction to that Ricky Gervais received when he used the word "Mong".  Both are perceived here as offensive terms about people with disabilities, even if the intention - or the cultural context of the speaker - is not to offend.

So how does this impact on HR? Well, how would you have dealt with any of these three situations if they had occurred in your workplace? Would "I didn't mean to be offensive" or "I didn't realise it meant something different here" be accepted as valid excuses in a disciplinary situation?

(This blog originally appeared here)

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