The pet names debate – are they appropriate at work?
Brighton resident Jo Walter’s letter to the local bus company has caused a stir in the past couple of weeks; Jo expressed that she disliked the use of pet names by bus drivers, and the company responded decisively by asking its drivers to avoid such terms – causing much controversy and debate in the local and then national media.
In an article for The Guardian newspaper Jo explains her action: “What is my crime? Just politely contacting my local bus company to let them know that I don’t like it when their bus drivers use terms such as “love”, “darling” and “babe”. I pointed out that I generally find their drivers friendly and courteous but that when some of them use that language I find it demeaning… I received a prompt and friendly response agreeing that it wasn’t really appropriate language and not something the company would condone. They promised to let drivers know that this sort of language isn’t appreciated and I didn’t really think much more of it…”
Jo was surprised that letting the bus company know how she found the use of pet names and the management’s subsequent actions received so much – often critical – coverage in the media and discussion online (see the #dontcallmebabe hastag on Twitter), saying ‘I don’t really think this is news’.
Despite the supposed controversy, a survey of 3000 by TV programme The Wright Stuff found that many shared Jo’s view; 75% said that they found the use of pet names at work unacceptable, one in four said that such terms made them angry, and one in twenty had taken a complaint to their boss.
The criticisms of Jo and the bus company, and the many predictable cries of ‘political correctness gone mad’, were perhaps not due to others failing to share or understand her view, but thinking that the bus company’s actions had been too extreme. An outright ban could discourage drivers from building a friendly rapport with their customers, detract from their enjoyment at work, and generally make them feel distrusted by management. Discussing the issue, Brighton and Hove MP Caroline Lucas agreed that ‘a ban is too far’ because such language should be judged according to the ‘context’.
Whilst an outright ban may be extreme, what is impressive is the bus company’s decisive action, which showed that they care about Jo’s perception and are sensitive to the diversity of their customers.
Jo elaborated on her perspective, emphasising how she was only sharing her personal view: “The thing is though, I personally find terms like “babe” coming from men to be overfamiliar, sexist and patronising. I’m allowed to interpret their words in that way, it doesn’t make me irrational or oversensitive. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour or that I should be grateful for the attention.”
However you decide to handle issues like this in your workplace, it’s important to always acknowledge your staff or clients’ concerns and if you don’t quite understand their point, remember that their perspective may be different to your own.
Whilst certain pet names may cause strong arguments on either side of the debate, there’s no doubt that they can be unprofessional and entirely inappropriate in other contexts – in this regard company policy should be transparent.
But the ways our behaviour and communication can affect others is far more nuanced than any policy can fully address. If you have an individual repeatedly making others feel uncomfortable by their language or behaviour, it can be best to more quietly deal with the matter by speaking to them privately, rather than issuing company-wide guidelines. On the other hand, in order to promote diversity across the workplace, training for all staff may also be in order (see how to promote workplace diversity); most often they will simply not have thought about the possible effects of their language and communication choices, particularly when dealing with those from diverse backgrounds – with different age, gender, sexual orientation, disability and religion, as well as differing personality, attitude, behaviour and cultural background.
The issue isn’t – as framed by some media – about companies desperately fearful of lawsuits and adhering to ridiculous ideas of so-called political correctness. It’s about ensuring an organisation is able to run smoothly by creating an environment where staff, clients and all stakeholders feel comfortable and respected.