Ban on using ‘mate’ at work

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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.
  • Bree Vreedenburgh on 11/12/2012 2:25:54 PM

    It sounds like this is a blanket solution to potential harassment - which, for a huge bureaucracy might be the only tenable option.
    As a woman, I do get irritated when guys call me love, honey, sweetie, darling... but if they call me 'mate' I'm not phased.
    I'm not sure that 'mate' falls into the same category as the other terms of endearment?

  • jkcantwell on 11/12/2012 2:37:43 PM

    I hope this doesn't apply in a hospital where there are young children - who might really appreciate a kindly doctor or nurse calling them sweetheart. If there is a real consideration for the patients, the right type of language is one where appropriate rapport can be built, and sometimes this means talking in their language (sweetheart for children or mate for tradies).

  • Gockoo on 11/12/2012 2:46:53 PM

    I often use 'Mate' for one person or 'Guys' for a group of people whether they be colleagues or clients. For clients, I find these endearments helps to relax them as they are often a bit nervous at the beginning of a training course. It takes away the Teacher-Student relationship associated with school. I often use 'Dear' in general conversation with any female (I'm female). I think it has a pleasant, caring feel to it.

  • MM on 11/12/2012 4:11:11 PM

    I have to say I absolutely hate it when client/caller says "thanks love" or "be a darling and..." to me it is overly familiar and unprofessional - and I'd be happy to tell the person my name again if they've forgotten it (which is usually part of the problem - they don't know who you are and don't care enough to bother finding out).

    But it is all part of the same issue I have with other "non-professional" conduct - such as trying to kiss me on the cheek before or after a meeting instead of just shaking my hand.

  • Matt on 11/12/2012 4:21:33 PM

    This is the biggest load of b******t I have read in a while. It is PC gone mad, calling someone mate is part of Australian culture. Calling someone mate is not demeaning in any way. Also I like it when my female receptionist call me 'sweetie' or 'darling'. It builds rapport. How about actually concentrating on making money and providing a better service to the client instead of wasting executive resources on dreaming up restrictive PC rubbish like this.

  • Bernie Althofer on 11/12/2012 5:43:28 PM

    I don't use any of the terms mentioned above. Having been a sexual harassment referral officer and then a Harassment Referral Officer, there is a fine line between what people see as acceptable conduct and language in the workplace. Some people do take offense to many of the words used above, in much the same way that any close contact e.g. kissing is seen as unwelcome.

    There may be workplaces and work colleagues who find the use of such language perfectly acceptable. there may also be a time and place to use terms that are associated with familiarity e.g mate etc. I worked with a person once who took offence to be called mate, so much so that his response was along the lines of "I am not your mate, I hardly know you, I did not give you permission to call me mate, don't ever do it again".

    In the past, some female employees have approached regarding the use of words such as 'sweetie' or 'darling' and they believed the terms were used to demean them. I am also aware that one female responded "I am not your wife, so don't call me sweetie, and I am not your darling" when the words were directed at her.

    However, many organisations now have fairly specific guidelines about what professional conduct means and the language that goes with that.

    I am also aware that some very offensive words are used as part of everyday language as terms of endearment, and I don't intend repeating them. When it was pointed out to the 23yr old male that the use of one particular word was racially offensive, his response was "I call all my mates that, it doesn't mean anything". To them it might not mean much, but to others, it is very offensive.

    I suspect that one way of making sure that the workplace meets standards is to discuss the types of words that people are uncomfortable with and as people come and go from the workplace, then the words are reviewed.

    Food for thought - what if words such as 'bluey' (ginger hair), shorty (for a tall person and other such nicknames were also words that should not be used?

  • Warren on 12/12/2012 8:05:11 AM

    Does this not depend on the company culture more than anything else?! In hospitality kisses and hugs are accepted... but you wouldn't see that happen in a bank. As HR professionals do we really have that much time on our hands to be writing these memos... unreal! I had better tell me female colleagues who call me 'mate' to watch out!!

  • Claire on 12/12/2012 1:08:24 PM

    I agree, that this is PC gone mad. Whilst I don't particularly like "love" or "darling" I know its people trying to be friendly and its not intended as patronising or sexist. Mate is a word used frequently in our society. Australians use lots of colloquial words. If an individual doesn't like it say so, otherwise it's not considered patronising in our society - this is Australia and I'm proud of our idiosyncrasies.

  • Daryl on 12/12/2012 3:26:16 PM

    For all those that think the words illustated are 'Austalian' and ok to use, just stop and think of a word that if it was said to you, that you would find it even a little odd or offensive. The degree of offence taken is what being an aware and proactive workforce/individual is all about. I'm sure there are a lot of words that are quite alright in a brothel for example, but not a kindergarden. Being reasonable and aware of what is acceptable is what it is all about - and obviously some people need training in that area as their interpretation is lacking...

  • Daryl on 12/12/2012 3:29:31 PM

    Terms of endearment are not acceptable. It shows a lack of respect, but probably a greater lack of professionalism. If you want to work in a foul mouthed environment, become a politician or the like where it is tolerated. I do not use such terms and think less of people that do.

  • Lovie dear on 13/12/2012 11:05:44 AM

    Has the world gone completely bongkis, sweetie darlings

  • Anna on 17/12/2012 12:01:43 PM

    We are really becoming a country where soon we will be too afraid to open our mouths for fear of saying the wrong thing. I don't see however that using terms of endearment or the word mate as pertaining to a foul mouthed environment as Daryl above would suggest.

  • turnde on 18/12/2012 11:58:18 AM

    I am Australian and therefore regularly use "mate" when greeting colleagues, acquaintences and friends. I do not use the other nominated words at all.

    I wonder how this discussion would go in a court of law, where recently in NSW a regularly used expletive was endorsed as non-offensive! Apparently this is also a directive within educational environments, where the same expletive is not to be "judged" as offensive. In this case I am mortified by the lack of standards in the judiciary and upper echelons of educational HR policies.

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