Health workers in the Northern New South Wales Local Health District were sent a memo this week reminding them they cannot call colleagues or patients ‘mate’.
Other terms on the banned list included ‘darling’, ’sweetheart’ and ’honey’, and in fact any such term that could be seen as affectionate or endearing.
The aim of the notice was to remind staff of the need for professional language within the workplace at all times. The ABC obtained a copy of the memo which read: “The utilisation of this language within the work place at any time is not appropriate and may be perceived as disrespectful, disempowering and non-professional. This type of language should not be used across any level of the organisation such as employee to employee or employee to client.”
It also said the directives are in line with the NSW ministry code of conduct. But for local health chief Chris Crawford, it comes down to context. “Some of that language actually can win people over because it sort of establishes a rapport, particularly with a client you might know and therefore sort of have some sort of relationship with," he told ABC.
In contrast to the directive, a 2007 UK-based survey conducted by Hiscox found that 50% of employees in the 25-34 age group think terms of endearment such as ’pet’ or ’love’ are acceptable in the office.
In the same survey, 41% of bosses thought the use of such terms was acceptable. However, a subsequent survey of 3,000 female workers by market research site OnePoll, found ‘love’ was female employees’ most hated pet name. Also on the list were ’darling’, ‘babe’, ’mate’ and ‘hun’. The survey revealed that almost three-quarters of women think pet names in the office are unacceptable, while one in four said it makes them angry. Notably male bosses or colleagues are most likely to address a woman with one of the terms of endearment.
Key considerations for HR:
There can be situations where affectionate name calling could constitute sexual harassment, because a typical definition includes “any conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment”.
As an HR professional, in responding to complaints against name calling it is advisable to try and distinguish whether the person is creating an informal atmosphere, or whether the tone is belittling or based on gender, in which case it could be sexist.