Dear Addi P.,
In our office, we have an employee who sees herself as the "office mother." She's only a few years away from retirement and has always used terms of endearment with younger employees. Many people see it as a sign of her thoughtfulness and others simply shrug it off. Recently, one of the men in the office has adopted the same approach and is referring to his female colleagues as "sweetie" and "honey." We're concerned about what constitutes harassment at work. Might his coworkers see these terms as a form of sexual harassment? How can we maintain a positive work environment while also ensuring employees aren't offended by these terms?
—Sweet Talking in Salem
Dear Sweet Talking,
It's important to consider what constitutes harassment at work. And you're wise to be concerned that these terms may make your employees uncomfortable. Simply put, regardless of who is talking, terms of endearment have no place in the office. While some people may use these words to try and create a relaxed atmosphere or to help make people feel welcome, they're more likely to have the opposite effect.
To help ensure you maintain a harassment-free workplace for all employees, consider applying some of these best practices to help limit employees' use of terms of endearment.
Set the Standard for Appropriate Language
Just as a harassment policy provides parameters about inappropriate humor (e.g., jokes or cartoons based on racial, ethnic or gender stereotypes), the policy is a place to inform employees about inappropriate language at work. Document that employees should refer to one another by name, not nicknames or terms of endearment, especially those that may refer to a protected characteristic such as gender, or age. These guidelines for appropriate workplace language can serve as a resource and reference point for HR and all employees if an issue comes up.
Educate Employees About Inappropriate Language
In addition to referring to terms of endearment in your policy manual, be sure to educate all employees about why these terms are inappropriate. Don't call out the people using inappropriate language amongst other employees; instead, use the training to communicate your expectations around workplace language. Acknowledge that although there may not be any ill intent or hidden meaning behind these nicknames, some colleagues may not appreciate being called "honey" or "kiddo." Explain that at a minimum, these terms can come across as condescending, and at worst they can be viewed as harassment that creates a hostile work environment.
Address Issues When They Arise
If you hear someone referring to another employee using terms of endearment, or if an employee comes to you and says a coworker is using inappropriate nicknames, you must promptly address the issue, which may feel awkward. Additionally, if you have an HR department, share this information with them as they would likely lead or need to be involved in the investigation and any disciplinary action.
Start by being honest: "I know how much you care about your colleauges, and I appreciate your efforts to create a friendly workplace. Those are both great qualities. I need to share how some of your efforts may not have been received as intended."
Openly share the feedback you've received: "I've heard feedback from some people that when you refer to them as 'honey,' or 'sweetie,' or other similar terms of endearment: they feel awkward. Some people shared that they don't feel respected when called by these nicknames."
After you've stated the issue as well as your concerns, refer to your company's policy and any training you've conducted. Remind the employee about what constitutes harassment at work and convey that these terms are not acceptable or consistent with company policy. Depending on the severity of the situation, as well as your disciplinary process, you may determine that it's necessary to issue a formal warning. A best practice would be to also follow up with the accuser to explain that the company has investigated and responded to the matter, and to follow up with the complaining employees to ensure that the conduct has ceased.
It's likely that some people don't even realize they're using terms that others may find offensive. That's why it's essential that, as an HR professional, you include information about terms of endearment in your policy handbook, educate employees about inappropriate language and address issues immediately when they arise. With a proactive approach, you're more likely to squelch the sweet talking before it even begins.