Should employees be trained to avoid words like “guys”?

A controversial new education campaign has raised questions about appropriate workplace language versus freedom of speech.

Should employees be trained to avoid words like “guys”?
A group of female employees are discussing business matters in an office environment. They are approached by a man in a blue suit who says: “Come on girls, let’s get cracking.” To which the four women reply unanimously: “Girls!”

That’s just one example of inappropriate language identified by the Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) in the campaign video #WordsAtWork.

The Australian of the Year and Chair of the DCA David Morrison appeared in the video and said that language plays a critical role in shaping workplace cultures.

“For some time I have been advocating that everyone in our society, from all genders, races creeds, ages, disabilities, religions or sexual orientations, be given a chance to achieve their potential,” said the former Lieutenant General.

“Unfortunately, in many workplaces, this isn’t always the case. People use language to denigrate others and to take away their self-respect. Sometimes it happens unconsciously, but the effect is the same.

“DCA’s new campaign is not about being ‘politically correct’ – it is about encouraging people to use language at work which is respectful, accurate, and relevant to everyone.”

The most controversial example from the campaign has been the use of the word “guys” which the DCA claims is gendered and can make women feel left out.

More obvious offensive language identified in the video includes “retard”, “poofter”, “fag” and “dyke”.

The DCA has also released a campaign guide which they said is a starting point for learning about inclusive language and communication.

In the guide the DCA said they tried to avoid creating lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language. Instead, the DCA explain why and how some language can include or exclude.

The DCA also claim studies show that:

Non-inclusive language contributes to and continues stereotyping.

Non-inclusive language harms people who witness it as well as the intended targets.

When used in job interviews, non-inclusive language results in applicants from excluded groups finding the position less attractive. They also experience less motivation and identification with the position than those who are exposed to inclusive language.

Non-inclusive comments in the workplace can have an insidious effect on individuals from the excluded groups, impeding their advancement at work by presenting them as incompetent and not suitable for leadership roles.

Frequent non-inclusive experiences at work have just as harmful effects as more intense but less frequent experiences (e.g. sexual coercion and harassment).

Non-inclusive jokes can lead to tolerance of hostile feelings and discrimination against people from excluded groups.

DCA CEO Lisa Annese added that workplaces are struggling to find guidance on how best to encourage more inclusive language.

“Day in day out, workplace culture is created every time there is an interaction between two individuals,” Annese said.

“DCA’s new tools will help organisations build more inclusive workplaces which can result in benefits like improved productivity and profitability, greater creativity and innovation, higher employee wellbeing and engagement and reduced employee turnover, to name just a few. For employers this means very concrete bottom line financial benefits.”

During a doorstop interview, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said campaigners shouldn’t try to interfere too much in free speech at workplaces.

“I think we can take this kind of concern too far,” she said.

“It would depend on the circumstances but I don’t think we should try and interfere with the freedom of speech in this country to a point where people are too concerned about day-to-day conversations.”

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