What did you say?????

The Problem: What is (or is not) appropriate communication in today’s workplace? Seems like a simple question, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s anything but. Take Company A, where the employees are good friends outside of work as well, and have known each other professionally and personally for years. They’re open about their personal lives…including how things are going in the bedroom…and don’t notice when the temp they’ve hired turns red as she hears the conversation going on around her. Appropriate?

Or, how about that construction Company B where “f-bombs” are a regular part of the vocabulary, along with other four-letter words. In this particular setting such language is only acceptable when used to talk about situations – never to talk to or about people. So, it’s alright to say, “f—” when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or to talk about the “sh—y weather” that’s preventing your from pouring concrete. However, when one new hire gets mad at someone and calls him a “f—ing idiot” everyone stops and stares, mortified. How was the new person supposed to know this use of an “f-bomb” was unacceptable, while other uses are OK?

And then there’s the ad agency Company C where employees regularly send x-rated cell phone text messages and pictures to groups of other employees who all work in cubicles in one big space. So, when one person sends out a text or picture to everyone else, the whole room erupts in laughter at the same time. It’s all great fun till a client happens to be walking through on the way to a conference room when this happens, asks what’s going on, is shown the message and becomes outraged. Can what you do with your personal phone get you in trouble at work? Sure – if it’s done on work time or work premises!

What to do: We all know that this is a difficult and complicated issue. What one person finds funny, another finds offensive. One person’s normal way of speaking hurts another person’s sensibilities – or feelings. Everyone laughed at yesterday’s dirty joke, but today several people said the new joke crossed a line – a line which the joke teller didn’t even know was there.

It’s tempting to simply tell people to use “common sense” – except that I’ve learned there is no such thing. You can’t assume that people will define acceptable and unacceptable language the same way. So, if you’re the supervisor or manager, have the conversation with your staff. Talk about what your expectations are – and yes, you get to have expectations about appropriate language in your workplace. Don’t assume people understand things the way you do. Develop and share clear expectations for oral and written communication, for paper, e-mail, instant message, text message and social media communication. Be clear about the use of four-letter words (whether that’s ever acceptable and if so, when) and sexual and racial language (I strongly recommend strictly forbidding all sexual or racial slurs). But also realize that no matter how clear you are, there will be many shades of gray. Make it OK to talk about those shades of gray, and invite conversation if questions come up. You will have come a long way if you set clear expectations, but also appreciate and openly acknowledge the complexity of this issue, and communicate your willingness to talk about it.

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