Better left unsaid: Avoiding offensive comments in a connected workplace
Some things are better left unsaid. Most of us have heard that phrase before, often in reference to an embarrassing statement or to a less-than-flattering comment about someone else. Insensitive, overly critical or derogatory language has no place in a healthy workplace culture.
A company’s culture is heavily influenced by how leaders treat employees, especially in group settings. It’s a fragile ecosystem governed not only by business objectives and financial goals, but also by what colleagues say and how they say it. A leader’s public criticism of an employee can trigger a range of negative reactions, including fear, animosity and low morale. If the criticism includes disparaging or inappropriate commentary, it can also heighten the potential for a lawsuit.
Offensive or improper language can take many forms and can include derogatory references to a person’s gender, ethnicity, religion, political views or intellect, among other things. This may seem obvious, yet so many executives fail to understand the importance of consistently treating colleagues and staff with courtesy and respect. No doubt this disconnect, even a one-time event, can negatively impact the executives themselves and their companies. Moreover, the potential consequences of using even borderline inappropriate language in the workplace are elevated given the digital environment that is now part and parcel of the business world.
The rise of social media and mobile communications has reduced the separation between our professional and personal lives. Mobile devices are often used as reporting tools, giving everyone the ability to share daily interactions with the rest of the world. Ultimately, every piece of content shared has the potential to be picked up by media outlets, which would lead to a dramatic increase in audience. As a result, organizations are much more exposed than they were even 10 years ago.
This is both good and bad. Mobile communications can aid employees who have positive workplace experiences and want to share those experiences. However, social media can also be used to create negative impressions of the workplace. Either way, mobile messaging can be a powerful and influential platform.
Despite its casual, informal feel, mobile communications must be governed by the same rules that dictate proper office behavior. Managers should respond to employees’ texts in the same manner and tone as they would to employees’ emails. For example, a manager should not respond to a group text inviting the team to the local pub to watch the game with a comment that she understands if those who are older are “too tired to attend.” Attempts at humor over text or email can fall flat because tone and intent can be difficult to decipher. Employees may be offended or, on the flip side, carry the jokes even further, crossing professional lines and increasing risks and exposure.
Notwithstanding the many effective programs that span diversity training, workplace values development and corporate social responsibility, here are some practical steps businesses can take:
Save direct employee feedback for one-on-one interactions. It can be difficult for employees to take constructive criticism in a group setting. It may embarrass them in front of their peers and negatively impact their morale. Group settings are good platforms for providing encouragement as well as delivering general advice on following best practices and avoiding common pitfalls.
Be mindful of sensitivities. Generally, workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse. This is a good thing. However, given differences such as ethnicity, gender, race, religion and political views, leaders and fellow employees need to think before they speak. Moreover, practice respect for everyone and learn humility in how you address colleagues.
Establish rules of respect. It’s often mandatory for businesses to establish clear guidelines for protecting employees from discriminatory and harassing behavior. Create policies that lay out the rules of colleague engagement and hold managers and individual contributors accountable for following these policies. Keeping these policies at the forefront of internal communications can help foster a friendlier, more productive culture.
Each of these steps, in concert with oversight from your human resources, legal and accounting advisors, can help your organization establish clear rules on internal communications and support a positive working environment. It’s imperative to refrain from inappropriate language in the workplace and to ensure everyone is treated fairly and respectfully.
Editor's note: This is a contributed piece by Jacqueline Breslin, director of human capital services at TriNet, a cloud-based professional employer organization for SMBs.