Ask the employment experts: Is my language appropriate for the workplace?

Jessica Laina

Jessica Laina, senior employment relations adviser from Employsure

When you consider the working environment of your business, a lot of it depends on the communication between yourself and your employees. This is why using the appropriate tone and language for a workplace is important. We all want to be treated with respect in social settings and it’s no different at work.

We sat down with Jessica Laina, senior employment relations adviser from Employsure to understand the complexities of using the right tone and dialogue in the workplace.

Why should employers be mindful of tone?

In order to be an effective communicator in your workplace, it’s necessary to be able to deliver your intent in the most appropriate tone and choice of words. The tone has a lot to do with winning over hearts and minds. Sometimes, a tough-talking employer can get the job done half as efficiently as kind-talking employer.

Is there a difference between swearing in the workplace and swearing at a colleague?

Whatever the context, employers and employees who swear and use foul language in the workplace are potentially getting close to the borders of bullying or harassment.

Employers should set an example for the behaviour which is expected in the place of work. By setting a standard, employees know what is expected of them.

To ensure your business is setting the right example for employees be sure to implement behavioural standards and safeguard behavioural policies and procedures in the employee handbook.

Not sure if you’re setting the right example for your employees? Download this free eBook to give you better insight into what your employees expect from you.

Are the terms “chicks” and “babes” ever appropriate at work?

Although comments like “chick” and “babe” sound harmless, if the person on the receiving end considers them unwelcome or interprets it as sexual in nature, you could find yourself in hot water. It’s important to remember sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct or advancement of a sexual nature. This is not limited to physical touching as it can also include any unwelcome verbal or physical behaviour that causes a person to feel offended, humiliated or intimidated – even sexually suggestive comments or innuendos.

What impact does gendered language have in the workplace?

Gendered language in itself isn’t damaging, however if the language becomes sexual in nature, that‘s what you need to watch out for. In fact, any language with a sexual element can have serious and damaging effects in the workplace.

Employers need to have an appropriate sexual harassment policy in place, to make sure staff are trained on how to identify and react to sexual harassment, have an internal procedure for dealing with harassment complaints and ensure they take appropriate action if sexual harassment occurs.

Bosses and managers in particular need to be aware of the language they use when dealing with staff. Employsure’s State of Work Report revealed one in five Australians have felt uncomfortable by an inappropriate remark from their boss.

Is it diminishing or affectionate to call people ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ in the workplace? Are the rules different if you’re a man?

Here’s the rule: if ever in doubt, don’t do it. That being said, there are workplaces where it’s perfectly acceptable. For example, if a colleague in a mechanic’s workshop says, ‘come on boys, let’s get out for lunch’ there may not be any perceived issue.

Consider the way male gendered language is used. “Chairman”, “manpower”, and “IT guy” roll off the tongue to refer to men and women collectively. Similarly, “guys” is often used to refer to a group collectively, regardless of gender.

Should we aim for gender neutral language, or will this erode warmth and tailored intimacy from our discourse?

Two things: know your audience and be conscious of the workplace culture. As Australians, we are known to be relaxed and informal in the workplace, so it’s important we don’t lose our identity.

Where do we stop?

We stop at the point where people are offended. The line in the sand is drawn if the language is sexual, racial, derogatory, or humiliating.


Jessica holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Human Resource Management at the University of Wollongong. She is currently a senior employment relations adviser to small business clients across various industries.


Australia has one of the most difficult workplace relations systems in the world. Employsure is here to help employers navigate the complexity. Employsure is the largest provider of employment relations and work health and safety services in Australia — servicing more than 24,000 clients nationally. More than 300 advisers and consultants provide independent advice to business owners on their workplace relations and health and safety obligations. Every day Employsure gives business owners the confidence that their workplaces are safe, fair and compliant.

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