Why inappropriate language is the next frontier in discrimination

How can employers ensure what their leaders say and how they say it does not land them in an employment tribunal? Ivor Adair and Eleanor Diamond report

Leadership is difficult and often not done well. Leaders set the tone and influence the culture in organisations. They are scrutinised not just for their judgement, behaviour and direct management, but on almost every statement and utterance made. Their choice of and stress on words are often clung on to, long after they are spoken, especially if they are delivered in haste or in less formal surroundings or formats.

A mean instant message will often rephrase what a manager has said or how they have said it and the vital component of context may be lost. Much damage can be done by loose, coarse or improper language to the legitimacy of and confidence in a leader; sometimes that can be fatal to their position. 

We only need to look to the world stage to find examples that demonstrate the power of language in leadership. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for the inclusiveness that emanates from her speeches in the wake of atrocities. Other leaders have been less admired for their words; some are reviled. 

A boss who occasionally turns the air in the office blue may not only risk loss of confidence in his or her judgement, but may be seen to be setting new norms of inappropriate cursing that can cause trouble later on.

Deciding when and in what circumstances poor language at work ought to be investigated and might lead to a disciplinary process can be a hazard for employers. In the case of swearing, context plays a key role in assessing an employee’s behaviour. Factors to consider include: 

  • whether the word or language is usually tolerated or commonplace in the workplace;
  • whether it is likely to damage the reputation of the employer;
  • whether the language is in response to being sworn at, or the result of provocation or an outburst in the heat of the moment; and
  • the status of the individual in the hierarchy of the organisation and any imbalance of power. Would a director swearing at a junior member of staff be more or less of a problem than vice versa? A higher standard of rectitude is usually expected of senior staff – that is part of the price of enjoying what comes along with the role.

An employment tribunal may find itself assessing just how banterous a workplace is and whether the conduct in question has crossed a line, viewed in its context.

There are steps an employer can take to reduce the risk of employment claims and general complaints of bullying. Clear written guidance on what are acceptable behaviours at work, at external work events and even on social media – coupled with effective training – is likely to reduce the risk of unfortunate incidents occurring and, if they do occur, assist in resolving them without legal action.

The plastic nature of language and the differing attitudes and sensitivities of those uttering and receiving certain phrases or words creates ambiguities over what is acceptable. Responsible employers need to be clear about what is not acceptable. Over time, some words merge with the ‘just about acceptable’ lexicon; what passes for everyday exclamation today might have been an unspeakable transgression a few generations ago. 

In recent times, the coarsening of political debate, Brexit divisions and the rise of social media, fomenting strong opinion or worse, may be accelerating changes to the norms of acceptability in certain areas of life. Those norms are, however, far less likely to be acceptable in the workplace. This is becoming an increasingly tricky area for employers and employees alike.

Ivor Adair is a partner and Eleanor Diamond an associate at Fox & Partners