Mind your flipping language! The words HR should ban from the workplace

HR News Editor, Lisa Baker discusses acceptable workplace language and how, despite HR ‘talking the talk’, there is still a long way to go.

Traditionally, New Year brings with it a spate of resolutions and personal goals to better ourselves, ranging from visiting the gym more often through to learning a new language (and yes, I’m on a new year diet like many of my colleagues at the Activ Absence office!)

We’re seeing a lot of talk at the moment about workplace resolutions for 2017.  Improving workplace language would be high on my list.

I don’t mean swearing – workplaces can decide whether swear words are acceptable for their particular environment. However, language which is sexist, racist or discriminatory is unacceptable in ANY workplace.


As a protected characteristic, racist language is something most HR teams are robustly tackling in the workplace already.  Thankfully most workplaces cover racist language in their HR policies.  Those who haven’t should do so in 2017.  While commentators claim the Brexit vote and a culture of fear is creating more racism, we cannot tolerate it creeping into the workplace.

Sexism & Homophobia

Despite talking the talk for some time now, we are far from truly eliminating sexist and homophobic language from our workplaces.  Even at it’s simplest, a successful female manager will often be referred to as a ‘bitch’.  I’m not even going to attempt to put together a list of sexist and homophobic terms and behaviour still used in workplaces – its huge!  Stamping it out is overdue.


Snobbery and it’s inverse cousin, elitism are not acceptable.  The way one talks or one’s place of birth is often often grounds for exclusion at work.  Someone who merely speaks nicely or had a public school education is automatically labelled a ‘snob’, ‘snot-nosed’ or ‘stuck up’ – similarly, those from less fortunate backgrounds are labelled ‘chavs’, ‘council estate bums’ and ‘yobbos’, often for no other reason. HR should discourage these judgments and the accompanying language from our workplaces.

Disability Discrimination

One of the better things about talent shortages is increased opportunities for disabled workers to show their abilities.

Our workplace language may not be intentionally offensive, but it can nonetheless create barriers and add to any unconscious bias in both recruitment and employment.  Should our workplaces have expressions like ‘throwing an epi’, ‘moving like a cripple’or ‘walking like Quasimodo’ being used in 2017?  They are obviously offensive, but I’ve heard them and worse used in offices.

Sticks and stones may break my bones…

Words can and DO hurt.  The word ‘Paki’ is not descriptive, it’s just disrespectful.

Similarly, adults with DS and their parents find the words mong, mongol, mongo, retard or retarded particularly hurtful, just as those with spina bifida find the terms ‘spastic’ and ‘spaz’ offensive.  These terms aren’t by any means the only ones, anything based on a personal characteristic is unacceptable.

Describing slow, broken or challenging things or people as ‘retarded’ is equally offensive and the word has no place in workplace vocabulary.

Even if you don’t directly employ someone who has a disability, you don’t know what family challenges your workforce have outside the office.  Adults with a protected characteristic and their families have a right to feel comfortable at work.  Actually, EVERYONE should have that right.

It would be great to see these offensive terms stamped out in 2017.

Workers with learning difficulties – neither toys nor children

Colleagues with any disability are equal colleagues, they are adults not children and are definitely NOT a workplace novelty.  It’s not just speaking to them like an adult, with respect, but also how you describe them when speaking to others.  Referring to a colleague by disrespectful names like ‘the spaz’, ‘the downsie’ (sigh) or even ‘you know, the special one’ quite rightly risks a discrimination claim.     It’s unacceptable in law and should be in practice.

A word about nicknames

Job role nicknames are a Welsh colloquialism, like ‘John the box’ (our local Undertaker) or ‘Dave Coaches’ (from Gavin and Stacey).

However, nicknames based on protected personal characteristics are generally a no-no.  I’ve heard nicknames like ‘Four eyed Fred’,’deaf Dave’, ‘gay John’, ‘black Tony’ and ‘daft David’ in places I’ve worked – clearly crossing boundaries – even if the person at least on the surface takes the name as fun workplace banter, it sets a dangerous precedent for what is acceptable.


Office Buzz Words

Whilst it would be unusual to see them covered by an HR policy, trendy workplace phrases and cliches can also be irritating to colleagues.  Kit Out My Office, an online retailer of office furniture, is urging bosses to think about their usage in 2017.

They asked 2,602 office workers across the UK to vote for the workplace expressions they hate the most.   The worst offenders were:

  1. Think outside the box
  2. It’s not rocket science
  3. Amazeballs
  4. Going forward
  5. Can I borrow you for a second?

Gareth Jones, Business Manager at Kit Out My Office said:

“The modern working life is fast-paced, and as such we strive to deliver information in a clear and concise manner. The downside of this is it is a breeding ground for jargon. Setting a collective New Year’s Resolution in your office to stamp-out jargon in 2017 could definitely help to improve morale.”

Why we should mind our language in 2017

There are so many reasons to change our language, not only to protect our workplaces from discrimination claims, but to improve morale and promote inclusion.   Dr Julia Claxton, Principal Lecturer in Leadership and Organisational Development at Leeds Beckett University explains the effects of not getting language right:

“hurt feelings, unclear goals and ambiguous strategies are just a few examples of issues that can arise and contribute to low morale and are the basis of an ineffective team that can be easily avoided.”

It’s always our resolution at HR News to support and promote equal, inclusive workplaces.  We’ll be doing more of it in 2017.

Author: Editorial Team

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