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Kate Palmer

Peninsula

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

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Are ‘love’ and ‘mate’ appropriate in the workplace?

This may seem extreme, but words of affirmation have seen businesses end up in tribunals. So, failure to address this could have serious consequences. HR advice and consultancy director, Kate Palmer, addresses this issue.
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This may seem extreme, but words of affirmation have seen businesses end up in tribunals. So, failure to address this could have serious consequences. HR advice and consultancy director, Kate Palmer, addresses this issue.

With the average UK worker spending 19% of their year at work, it’s only natural that friendships are formed amongst colleagues. 

While enjoying the company of people you spend so much time with is positive, it can sometimes pose issues when it comes to maintaining levels of professionalism.

Affirmations such as ‘love’ or ‘mate’ are commonly used amongst friendship groups, often without even thinking. But in a professional environment, such terms can be deemed inappropriate.

Affectionate or derogatory?

Whilst an employee may feel they’re being nice to someone by referring to them in this way, some people can think it derogatory.

We see this a lot in HR. ‘Love’ in particular can be problematic as it’s commonly used as a female-specific reference. There have been instances where female employees have felt offended or that they’re being treated differently to their male counterparts when referred to as ‘love’.

As well as the risk of pet names causing offence, they can also blur the line between professional and personal relationships. To avoid situations like this, make sure to have clear policies in place outlining the standards of behaviour that are expected in the working environment.

Leadership and training

A manager’s role is to ensure that the team follows the correct procedures, so the business runs as smoothly as possible. So, if managers overhear colleagues using terminology that isn’t appropriate, they should step in and act where appropriate. In extreme cases where words cause offence or are being used in a bullying or harassing way, then this could lead to disciplinary action.

Regular training is also important to reinforce policies and expected behaviours, ensuring that standards are kept and always at the forefront of the team’s minds.

This may seem extreme, but words of affirmation have seen businesses end up in tribunals. So, failure to address this could have serious consequences.

referring to a male as ‘mate’ does not have the same context

Tribunal case: Employee dismissal

A funeral home manager took his employer to tribunal after he was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct after female colleagues complained about his ‘insulting’ comments, for referring to them as ‘sweet’ and ‘chick’. 

The manager claimed his dismissal was sexual discrimination as he had also used pet names for male colleagues, such as ‘mate’ and ‘pal’.

However, the tribunal found that referring to a male as ‘mate’ does not have the same context due to the fact it does not undermine or infantilise them in the same way as the term ‘sweet’ does to a woman, and his claim was dismissed.

ITV and the Philip Schofield scandal

When employees have an established relationship with a colleague outside of work then it can be difficult to separate the two and remember to use more professional language in the workplace if they’re used to using affirmative words and joking around in their friendship.

Some employers – most notably, recently, ITV – have policies requiring employees to disclose their relationships, both romantic and friendships, with colleagues to help manage them and ensure there is no conflict of interests and professional boundaries are not crossed.

This policy was brought in by ITV in the wake of the Philip Schofield scandal where it was deemed that professional relationships were put into jeopardy and lines were crossed when he started a romantic relationship with a much junior colleague. 

Following a thorough internal investigation, and parliamentary inquiry, ITV found that the relationship had flouted their values and Schofield was dismissed. 

ITV’s disclosure policy a step too far?

To prevent personal relationships from posing an issue in the future, ITV brought in a policy stating that personal relationships of any sort, including friendships, must be reported to management. 

Under the policy, those who fail to report personal relationships with colleagues – regardless of whether they are long or short-term relationships – will be subject to disciplinary proceedings. All employees are covered by this policy, including contractors, freelancers, and agency staff. 

The policy has faced some negative backlash, including whether or not claims of bullying or harassment could arise if one employee named another as a friend, but the other person failed to name them as one.

This sheds new light on whether words of affirmation are appropriate in the workplace or not. Typically, though not exclusively, they would be used towards someone you are friendly with. Which poses the question as to whether ITV could commence disciplinary action simply for using ‘friendly words’ if you haven’t declared a friendship or relationship. 

if there is a risk of someone being offended, it’s best not to use them.

Where do we draw the line?

Although some words of affirmation can be deemed to be unprofessional, there are other phrases that are commonly used to motivate teams. And while most people would have no issue with someone using words in a motivational context, it’s always best practice that if there is a risk of someone being offended, it’s best not to use them.

Inevitably, employee morale will come in waves, dependent on many different circumstances. And when employees are feeling deflated, there are ways that managers can use affirmations to motivate their team whilst also remaining professional. 

Avoiding pet names but letting employees know that they are doing a great job and are valued members of the team, is the best way to help motivate the team. 

Any words or phrases that can be interpreted as derogatory or slanted more towards one gender or another should be avoided, especially if you’re looking to encourage staff to work to the best of their ability.

 

Interested in this topic? Read How HR can avoid a Schofield Saga in five practical steps

Author Profile Picture
Kate Palmer

HR Advice and Consultancy Director

Read more from Kate Palmer
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