Portrait of a young businessman covering his mouth with his hand

The double-edged sword of being politically correct at work

New research finds that employees who were politically correct did so to benefit their colleagues but ended up harming their relationship with their spouse.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Imagine that over the weekend, you heard a joke that made you laugh so hard that tears streamed down your face and your stomach cramped. At the time, you couldn’t wait to share this joke with your coworkers – you wanted to give them a good laugh to start the week!

Once Monday rolls around, though, you realize this joke maybe won’t go over so well with some of your colleagues, so you decide not to mention it.

This self-censorship is an example of being politically correct at work.

Klodiana Lanaj

Martin L. Schaffel Professor Klodiana Lanaj

While new research from the University of Florida Warrington College of Business shows that being politically correct at work is motivated by a desire to benefit coworkers, it can also be a double-edged sword and end up harming an employee’s relationships outside of the office.

Specifically, the research found that when employees were politically correct at work, they ended up feeling more exhausted at the end of the workday, causing them to lash out at home.

“This happens because political correctness requires constant monitoring and modifying of one’s behavior so as not to offend others at work,” explained Klodiana Lanaj, co-author of the research and Martin L. Schaffel Professor. “As a consequence, when these employees go home, they tend to withdraw more from their spouse, and to also express more anger toward their spouse.”

The team of researchers, including Lanaj, Ph.D. alumna Valeria Alterman (BS ’14, Ph.D. ‘20) of the University of Miami, alumnus Joel Koopman (BS ’07, MA ’09) of Texas A&M University, Young Eun Lee of Florida State University, and Cody Bradley and Adam C. Stoverink of the University of Arkansas, define political correctness as “the self-censorship [i.e., suppression and/or modification] of language or behavior to avoid excluding, marginalizing, or offending others.”

“Broadly, political correctness may manifest as refraining from sharing a risqué joke out of concern of hurting others’ feelings, altering language to be gender neutral, suppressing saying something that might be considered rude or insensitive, or avoiding controversial topics altogether,” the researchers explain.  

This behavior, the researchers find, is a choice that employees make when they are in the office and is a source of cognitive resource depletion. With cognitive resource depletion, comes the downstream consequences of being politically correct.

“As [cognitive] resources become depleted, people become more prone to self-control failures,” the researchers note. “Although self-control failures do occur at work, they may be particularly likely to manifest at home. This is because, compared to work, the home environment may feel inherently safer for self-expression and interpersonal risk-taking.”

In our world, where many employees grip onto their own opinions and beliefs, without being willing to entertain the views of others, managers might consider how political correctness impacts their employees.

While the research finds that employees practice political correctness out of concern for their coworkers, potentially meaning that managers should want more of their employees to be politically correct in the workplace, the downstream consequences are worth considering.

Instead, the researchers recommend that managers first create a plan to mitigate the possible depleting consequences of political correctness. Specifically, they suggest that managers clearly articulate to their employees the value, as well as the costs, of being politically correct at work as well as provide more training to employees to facilitate recovery from cognitive depletion such as self-reflection or practicing mindfulness.

Alongside managing the depleting effects of political correctness, managers could increase their emphasis on inclusion at work through training sessions as to emphasize the importance of being sensitive to coworkers’ needs, as this could improve the extent to which employees are concerned with the welfare of their coworkers and political correctness.

This research is forthcoming in Journal of Applied Psychology.