Coffeepot Chatter: Be On Defense When It Comes To Offense

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Maria is having a conversation with Susan, a colleague from another department.

Maria: I was trying to edit my position description but I can’t do anything in the position description tool. Tom was having the same problem. I’m sure Harry knows what to do.

Susan: We’ve been doing that too. We had to call HR to give us editing access.

Maria: Oh yes, I believe I heard that before. I’ll need to tell the boys.

Susan: The boys? Maria, I’m shocked. Do you openly call them that?

Maria: Um, no. I don’t believe I do. At least I certainly hope not. I don’t mean anything by it. You know I think Harry and Tom are great.

Susan: I know, Maria. That’s why the comment surprised me.

Susan, is right. It is surprising to hear Maria refer to the grown men in her office as “boys.”  This is especially true since not too long ago Maria felt uncomfortable when an employee called her “honey.”


Not Meant To Offend

At this point, some of you may be saying “Wait a minute! I’ve called male co-workers ‘the boys’ and females ‘girls’ and it wasn’t intended as sexist or disrespectful!” Some of you may have even called a colleague ‘honey’ or ‘dear,’ too. You probably used these terms because you like the person and enjoy working with him or her. 

But even if you intended no offense, do you know how your remark was received? If you have used these terms before without the intention of offending someone, ask them how they felt. You may be surprised at the answer.


Girls…Boys…and Drivers?

Terms like “girls” and “boys” do two things:

  1. They attract attention to the gender of the co-worker unnecessarily
  2. They refer to adults in a childlike way, suggesting a lack of maturity or seriousness

Do you remember back in February when NASCAR racer Danica Patrick became the first woman ever to earn the pole position at the Daytona 500? Patrick has insisted that she wants to be considered just a “driver.” So, when it came time for actor James Franco to ceremonially start the race, his call of “Drivers….and Danica, start your engines!” was an especially cringe-worthy moment. 

Franco didn’t mean to offend – he was actually trying to make note of the historic occasion. But the result was to make Patrick stand out from her male colleagues and, unfortunately, even seemed to suggest she wasn’t a real “driver.”

A good rule of thumb in the office (and the race track) is to avoid terms that single out someone based on their gender. This includes terms like “policeman” or “workman.” Try “police officer” or “worker” instead.


A Few More Thoughts

There are a lot of areas where we risk offending colleagues. You might think nothing of using the name for a deity as an expression of exasperation, but someone else might find it deeply offensive. You might not even realize you are calling a younger co-worker kiddo, but he or she might bristle at this reference to age.

It's also important to remember that depending on the topic and frequency, using these kinds of terms could be considered harassment or a form of discrimination. 

Of course we often grow close to our colleagues, but that doesn’t mean we should use the type of speech with them that we do at home. The key is to remember that you are in a professional environment. Be a thoughtful coworker by using professional communication.  


For More Information

Here are a couple of ways to educate yourself about avoiding harassment: