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Demand immediate stop to demeaning language

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Make sure managers and supervisors understand that belittling name-calling has no place in the workplace and won’t be tolerated. Bans on obscenity aren’t enough. You must also stop other sexist terms, such as referring to a woman as “Barbie.”

Recent case: After Kelly raised the possibility that a vendor was overbilling the Pennsylvania National Guard for contract work, her relationship with her supervisors deteriorated quickly. The first attacks were personal. One of her bosses allegedly spread rumors that Kelly was having an extramarital affair with an officer she worked with.

Then the name-calling began, but it wasn’t directed solely at Kelly. She said her female co-workers began suffering, too. By Kelly’s account, other women in the workplace suddenly found themselves referred to as “Barbie,” sometimes “bitch” and even “whore.”

Kelly eventually sued, alleging that she had complained about the demeaning environment, but that management did nothing to stop it.

The federal court hearing the case ordered a trial on Kelly’s sexually hostile work environment claim. (Sharp v. Pennsylvania Army National Guard, et al., No. 1:11-CV-1262, MD PA, 2012)

Final note: It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be universally civil all the time, but you can and should demand a halt to all demeaning slurs. Ban any words that target a specific sex, race or other protected characteristic.

You don’t have to come up with a specific and exhaustive list. An example or two should do the trick. Think of it the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart explained what’s pornography and what may be art: “I know it when I see it.” Any word that would make you flinch if you heard it at a dinner party probably shouldn’t be spoken at work—and certainly not by a supervisor.

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