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Judgemental January 22, 2013

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.
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judgeI was asked to coach Mary (not her real name), a senior manager.  A staff member in her team, Manpreet, had raised a formal complaint against Mary as she had asked him, in an open-plan office, why he needed to wear a turban.  Mary had queried whether it was essential for Manpreet to follow the tradition of his culture and religion, given that he was born and brought up in the UK.

During our coaching sessions, Mary explained that she was mortified that Manpreet had considered it necessary to raise a formal complaint about this, especially as she often stated in team meetings that she strived to be ‘non judgemental’.  Her rationale for this comment to Manpreet about his turban was that she would consider it unusual to find a Scot wearing a kilt in Malaysia and also because, in France, the law does not allow people to display religious affiliations through attire.

I reflected on Mary’s comments about being ‘non judgemental’ and her explanation that she was merely curious about Manpreet wearing a turban.  However by starting the conversation with ‘Why he needed…?’ Manpreet felt that he had to justify his wearing a turban. Mary’s question, asked out of interest, was perceived by Manpreet to be an insult as he subsequently raised a complaint about this.

Collins Essential English defines ‘judgemental’ as: Inclined to make a judgement, denoting an attitude in which judgement about other people are made’.  One thesaurus defines it as ‘the synonyms for judgemental are all negative in connotation and include condemnatory, self righteous, censorious and critical’.

Intrusive and intimate questions are sometimes asked to those perceived as ‘different’. These questions, a mechanism for the questioner to clarify assumptions about the ‘different person’, risk becoming a get out clause of ‘but I am curious’ if offence is taken.   The perception is, If I am genuinely interested in this man, why can’t I ask how many lovers he has had because he is gay? Why can’t I ask this woman if she lives in an extended family because she said she had an arranged marriage?  Why can’t I ask someone with hearing problems ‘So what is it like not being able to appreciate music?  Etc.

But, does the fear of being perceived or labelled as judgemental mean that people cannot or should not ask questions of each other or share opinions?  If a person’s opinion is formed by their values, beliefs and the culture to which they belong, the declaration of this opinion, considered as acceptable in one culture, could be seen as offensive by others from different cultures.

A white British colleague has a traditional Chinese name; her parents liked its meaning. This colleague explained that others naturally assume she is Chinese.  However on meeting her and realising that she isn’t, she regularly faces ‘Oh you’re English, how come you have a Chinese name?’, or ‘You’re not what I expected’ or even ‘I’m so disappointed that you’re not Chinese as I wanted to understand Eastern philosophy’.

I recognised that, for this colleague, having had to explain the background to her name countless times, she felt weary and frustrated that her perceived difference became a focal point and she was expected to take responsibility for sorting out others’ assumptions about her name.    She preferred for colleagues to wait until she was ready to explain the background to her name rather than them knocking on her ‘door of difference’, each knock representing a ‘Why?  Huh… Why?…  Voltaire quotes  ‘Judge a person by their questions rather than their answers’.

In essence, these sorts of comments and questions trigger emotions in the recipient.  When opinions, based on limited facts or knowledge, are raised, often with an unspoken expectation that these opinions will be clarified by the recipient, irrespective of whether or not they want to.  It should be said that forming an opinion is not necessarily being judgemental; the judgemental element implies a condemnation of the other, an expectation that others should either live by your chosen standards or to explain or even justify why this is not the case.

In any dialogue where ‘difference’ is an issue, what is key is whether the questioner / initiator, by telling the truth, being curious or showing genuine interest, shows any judgemental disapproval that hurts or distresses the other person.  It is also worth identifying whether anything positive is gained by such a dialogue.  If hurt / distress or negativity are likely to result, then the curiosity, the interest in people ideology needs to be scrutinised rigorously.

From the examples given, it seems logical, appropriate and perhaps even necessary to wait until someone with an apparent difference is the right frame of space/mind and so ready to discuss and explain their differences (as opposed to asking questions which seem out of context to the receiver).  This was clearly the case for Mary and her apparent expectation that Manpreet, living in UK, should not be wearing a turban and should readily respond to her questions, irrespective of whether he was ready to do so.

Key issues to consider are:

In what context am I asking this question?

How would I feel if a stranger, simply because they were curious, asked me to explain my dress sense, my name, my way of living etc?

Are having my questions answered beneficial to me, to the other person and /or to our relationship? What are the consequences / implications and possible repercussions of asking (or not asking) this question?


We judge others by their behaviour. We judge ourselves by our intentions.



1. PJ Dhillon - January 23, 2013

“France, the law does not allow people to display religious affiliations through attire.” Mary Quote

This instance not happened in France I guess and British have its own laws. It is ridicules that Mary given that example.

Turban is integral part of every one who ‘follows’ or practice Sikh religion. Sounds like this supervisor need some ‘diversity’ training to discharge her duties .

Nicely written and thanks for sharing with me.


PJ Dhillon

2. Pece - January 23, 2013

Hi Sneha, good article. It feels like the organisation is moving towards dealing with their cultural biases, which is great! A question for Mary is… What does she imply when she says she “strived to be non-judgmental”? Organisations that promote cultural understanding and embrace cultural differences, are dissipating the idea that staff can’t get interested in each others cultural characteristics. Every staff member is a gift to the employer and unless they can speak about their cultural identity, they are a gift waiting to be unwrapped. So, moving beyond fears and sensitivities to open every precious gift is well worth perseverance.

3. Alyson Malach - January 24, 2013

II agree that diversity bring benefits to the workplace. However, if the question is appropriate and relevant and leads to outcomes/information to improve practice, no issues here for this exchange of dialogue.

However, if the question is personal like this one I suggest that the question is left for you to develop yourself in a formal/structured way, or it is not asked at all.

People often ask me why West Indians like cricket so much. How do I know? I am not a West Indian. Yes, I am black but my heritage is Chinese. I saw an English man recently with dreadlocks, no way did I think of asking him why he grew his hair this way.

It is his choice, maybe his religion, culture etc. Just because he does not fit a stereotype does not give me the right to interrogate him about his diversity/difference.

4. Becky Byrn-Schmid - January 24, 2013

This is an interesting situation. I would say that Mary has forgotten her manners because either she is a manager or she needs help in learning how to develop manners that that promote respectful relationships and boundaries. As a manager, we must always recognize we hold a different status that those we supervise – even if we feel we work on the same playing field. If a colleague asked that question, it may have been taken differently. In addition, as a colleague or manager, I would not ask such a question, especially in public because I would expect it to be a sensitive question. If I really wanted to know the answer to such a question, I would probably find the answer on the internet. Unless I had a personal relationship with the person, I would consider it an instrustive question – and maybe not even then because I would know it probaby has something to do with religion (which I think we need to be very careful about addressing with anyone in the workplace).

I think the idea of diversity training would be of great help. We all can be positively curious about each other’s backgrounds, customs, traditions, and religion. Some questions are more personal than others to ask outright. So, having some kind of vehicle in which people can volunteer sharing about these things is a good start! That way no one feels pressured or judged because they can share what they want for the rest to learn and enjoy.

5. Bernie Althofer - January 24, 2013

This is an interesting situation and perhaps there is no ‘right’ answer. I suspect that there are times individuals want to clarify their understanding regarding issues such as identified in this article. It seems that the underlying principles rest in how people may or may not be treated with respect and dignity. If one has no knowledge or understanding of the cultural or religious beliefs or even practices of another, individual curiosity might be such that one will want to ask a question to gain an understanding. However, the way the question is framed can lead to a belief that the person is being targeted because of those beliefs or practices.

In this day and age, and given the way that some legislation is being or has been drafted, it is important to understand that intent becomes a critical issue. One may not intend to offend another, but the way legislation is or has been drafted, another person can be offended on behalf of another.

Interactive workshops where participants can have the opportunity to discuss and clarify their understanding are a range of diversity and unlawful discrimination issues seems to be the most practical way of ensuring workplace education. It might also be possible to discuss why asking some questions are inappropriate. Sometimes asking an innocent question because one lacks knowledge on the particular issue can and often does lead to allegations or complaints.

6. Ruth Austen-Vincent - January 25, 2013

This is a really interesting case study, which would be great to build into training as I’m sure it would generate several different responses. Have in the last few years started looking at how people work with difference using a model called the Inter-Cultural Development Continuum developed by Dr Mitchell Hammer. Have found it is a great tool to use to support people in exploring situations like this whilst focusing on the goal they have which as Mary states is to be non-judgemental. It enables people to explore how their values and the way they work with people may not always be aligned.

7. allabouttalent - February 22, 2013

For me there are several components to this case worth considering…

Whilst Mary’s behaviour generated a complaint based on religion / cultural insensitivity, it does raise questions about Mary’s capabilities as a manager.

Have other members of her team felt uncomfortable or distressed by other inappropriate comments or remarks? You haven’t explained the reasons for the coaching, just based on this one event? Did you observe her behaviour in staff meetings and in one to one review sessions with other staff?

Leadership is not just about giving direction but understanding those you lead and not just about understanding diversity but the diversity of skills the manager brings to the job; it would seem in this case a failure of cultural sensitivity.

Professor Geert Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. Although his work has been refined and some argue superseded by other models of behaviour one aspect, power-distance has stuck with me.

You may know that power-distance is about the relationship between the ‘boss’ and the bossed. This is very difference in different national cultures, different organisations and is very dependent on the situation.

For example, in India meet someone new on neutral ground, say a train, and the conversation will often have three steps:-
1. What is your good name?
2. What do you do?
3. How much do you earn?

Asking how much I earn might be taboo in the UK but I’ll trade off that request for the silence of the 7:40 from Orpington any day. Context is all.

Managers need to recognise the day to day control or power they implicitly have by the very nature of their position. This places a responsibility on them in the language they use.
Two women senior managers commented to a younger male employee at a business social, in terms, that he ‘scrubbed up well’. He felt uncomfortable, could he comment on their attire? Even in the social setting, dangerous territory? How would we react if two male colleagues made such comments? With power comes responsibility and the obligation to recognise it goes beyond the office.

Are managers aware of their behaviour and its impact? Well coaching might do it.

There is much anecdotal evidence to note that when a company opens up its 360 feedback reporting period how sensitive a manager can become. Coffee and doughnuts all round?

So for me this could have several dimensions:-
• Leadership styles and capabilities
• Cultural awareness
• Diverse skills, that go beyond compliance with inclusion and diversity policy

And then, there is just the foot in mouth, a thoughtless moment, the wrong place the wrong time.

So Mary might show she has recognised her insensitivity, did you suggest she might just say sorry?

Maybe in one of the team meetings they could have sessions on cultural identity?

8. Annabel Kaye (@AnnabelKaye) - March 8, 2013

Sorry to be a bit out of step with all this, but I am puzzled by Mary asking this question is seen as a bad thing. Forgive me but my father was Viennese. His family always had patisseries over coffee and it was a key part of their life. Their family and religious life for various reasons revolved around food.

I live in the UK and do not keep up with the food part of the family and religious tradition. If I did walk around carrying a plate of cream cakes and someone asked me why I did that i would not be offended or think this was grounds for complaint since it seems to me obvious that we do not all exactly follow the traditions of our ancestors.

Whilst you would expect most people in the UK to realise that a sikh wears a turban for religious reasons, there must be some people of sikh extraction who are no longer religiously active, just as there are lapsed catholics and secular jews.

Have we arrived at the point when asking a question is deemed an insult or grounds for complaint? Surely if there is no ‘side tone’ to how it is asked, honest enquiry even basd upon ignorance can only be answered by a genuine response “It is a requirement of my religion that I do this”. If that is all there is – why has it raised so many feathers?

No wonder people think they are not allowed to talk about anything at work!

Total respect for anyone working in the equality and diversity field – but you can’t make it a requirement that every supervisor knows the ins and outs of every faith. I bet you don’t know the correct way for a practising high magician to wear their knife or for a witch to create a doll? Should they be insulted if you ask about it?

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