Setting the tone in the workplace

By Russell Drake

 

With an increasing number of complaints being raised by Employees regarding the use of inappropriate language within the workplace the question must be asked; what is the acceptable ‘tone’ of language within a business and when does such language cross the line to become unacceptable?

Generally such claims arise from incidents of one Employee against another, however an Employee may also take offence about the manner in which they are spoken to by their Employer. In investigating such complaints the two noticeable aspects are; (1) once acceptable forms of language can very quickly become unacceptable and (2) the Employer is often the party who sets the level of acceptance based on their own behaviours.

The Employment Court have concluded that the workplace environment, and its culture and customs, can establish the standard as to what may be considered acceptable in one environment, where such language may not be acceptable in another (i.e. a building site vs an early childhood centre). However ultimately it will be the Employees that determine when the tone of language crosses the tipping point from being acceptable one day to be unacceptable the next.

The ongoing acceptance of inappropriate language towards workers can therefore be defined as a form of workplace bullying and harassment and as such, where allowed to persist unchecked, can create a significant potential liability for the employer.

Employer’s therefore have a duty and responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 to ensure that they establish the boundaries for the use of ‘colourful’ language in the workplace, and that they promptly address any concerns raised by workers where it is believed that such language has crossed the line. Such concerns may be raised as a result of a one-off abusive incident by one Employee against another however such concerns may also exist due to the ongoing (unaddressed) deterioration of general banter between workers.

For a workplace to be ‘safe’ does not mean that it must be completely devoid of ‘colourful’ language but rather a ‘safe’ environment may be more accurately defined by the stated standards expressed by the Employer and the willingness of the Employer to respond appropriately to any concerns raised by Employees.

Expected standards of language and conduct can be clearly expressed within workplace Codes of Conduct or House Rules with this providing a good measure to assist the Employer in addressing complaints or in determining whether an Employee’s complaint has substance.

If you require any assistance in documenting a policy applicable to your work environment please feel free to give us a call.

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