Put it in your handbook: Supervisors must never use demeaning language

It’s not enough to have policies in place that let you win employee lawsuits. You need policies that ensure you don’t wind up in court in the first place.

For example, simply having a rule that requires managers to avoid sexist, ageist or otherwise offensive words can prevent lawsuits based on perceived discrimination.

Recent case: Sharon McGuigan wanted a promotion to a new position at the IRS. But when she heard that her supervisor had used the words “old and cold” to describe her to the selection panel, she automatically thought he was referencing her sex and age. At the time, McGuigan was 47.

When she didn’t get the promotion (it went instead to a man under age 40), she filed an age and sex ­discrimination case.

That forced the IRS to defend its promotion decision. The supervisor had to persuade the trial court judge and, later, federal appeals court judges, that he meant nothing offensive. In­stead, he said he called McGuigan’s management experience “old and cold” because it was not recent.

HR Forms D

Eventually, the appeals court dismissed the case, but not until the IRS had spent valuable time and money defending itself. (McGuigan v. IRS, No. 10-4462, 3rd Cir., 2011)

Final note: Back up your civility policy with training that cites specific examples of language that may offend. Make civility part of your performance appraisal criteria. Pay particular attention to words associated with age, such as “dinosaur,” “pops” and “over the hill.”