Qantas staff told to avoid gendered names like “guys” and “honey”: Should your workplace enforce bans on key words?

Emma Koehn /

Qantas has advised its staff to ditch words like “guys” and “honey” in order to work towards a more inclusive company culture, and one legal expert says SMEs could also benefit from developing a plan for courteous language in the office.

The airline confirmed to SmartCompany this morning it had shared information sheets about inclusive language, prepared by the Diversity Council of Australia, with its staff.

“We want Qantas to be an inclusive workplace and we shared some factsheets created by the Diversity Council of Australia with some suggestions on more inclusive language, particularly on gender, age and LGBTI issues,” a Qantas spokesperson explained.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the materials included asking staff to avoid words, like “honey” or “guys”, which could be construed as inappropriate, as well as using the word “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife”.

The information sheet also reportedly reminds staff that Australia was not settled by Europeans, but colonised.

Managing director at Workplace Law Athena Koelmeyer says while Qantas has the weight of a large human resources department behind it, setting guidelines for staff about the language they use is also within the grasp of SMEs.

Koelmeyer says it can be more challenging that ever to ensure staff interact with each other with “courtesy”.

However, a business can ask its staff to avoid certain language, or ensure they act respectfully to certain groups, and employers can do this without coming up with a list of “banned” words.

I think that the using the fundamental rule of ‘do as you would be done by’ serves organisations well, without having to implement your own dictionary,” she says. 

Challenges of a casual work environment

Koelmeyer says particularly for businesses that grow quickly, it can be a challenge to enforce expectations around things like swearing and inclusive language, particularly if company founders knew each other well when they started their business.

“There can be a bit of a feeling that ‘we’re all very casual’, not in a traditional office environment and wearing suits, so there can become a blurring of the lines between what is matey conversation and what is for a professional workplace environment,” she says.

However, it is best practice for businesses to think about how their language might affect others, which is why it’s a good idea to establish early on an expectation that workers avoid speaking in a way that may make some uncomfortable or feel excluded, Koelmeyer says.

From an SME perspective, something that would be readily able to be implemented is to introduce a more generic guideline to not use language that could be offensive. You could say, ‘let’s not use colloquialisms for people, let’s call people by their names, rather than ‘sweetie’ or ‘love”, which I just think is polite,” she says. 

If a business has consistently reminded staff to speak courteously to each other, it provides a good platform for employers to pull workers aside if their conversations at work are inappropriate for your business.

“It would then be enough to pull someone aside and say, ‘hey, remember when we discussed this issue? Now straighten up and fly right’.”

NOW READ: What employers need to know about bad language in the workplace

Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.