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NSFW: What words are “Safe for Work”


Shine Lawyers | Christie Toy | Shine Lawyers

Written by:
Christie Toy
Senior Solicitor

Words can be very powerful and the recent move by the Katter party to protect gendered language (like “her” and “him”) in the workplace along with the union delegate fined for his “strong words” has raised some interesting conversations about what you can, and can’t, say in the office.

There are actually already lots of words that we know can cause you trouble in your job. There are certain swear words, ageist terms and derogatory names that have over the years been ruled by the courts as inappropriate.

Of course different workplaces have different standards of what is ok to say, for example on a construction site versus in the office. The important thing is context – so it depends what job you do, where you are working and who you say it to or in front of, that determines if something is unacceptable.

Swear words

Swearing at work and the use of offensive language can be considered misconduct and in some circumstances may even end up getting you sacked.

The following comments made by employees have been considered by the Fair Work Commission as being inappropriate and a basis for dismissal:

  1. Well I guess that means that you wasted my f***ing time – when directed at a customer;
  2. You are a big fat c***. You are not helping with my stress levels – when directed at the employee’s boss.

The Fair Work Commission will usually consider that swearing in general in the workplace, like when you stub your toe on the photocopier, is less offensive as swearing at your boss.

But swearing at a customer is likely to be considered a sackable offence,  especially if the employee is in a customer service role.

If you have a good track record and depending on the exact words used you might just be given a warning rather than being fired.

For example, a one off isolated incident of swearing or use of inappropriate language out of frustration may not warrant dismissal.

A reminder that many words that were used frequently 20 or 30 years ago can now be considered unacceptable and vice versa.

Sexual terms

Any kind of sexually explicit words or banter in the workplace is no longer acceptable. Many people don’t realise that they can be held personally liable under anti-discrimination legislation if they sexually harass a colleague and that includes making unreciprocated comments of a sexual nature.

It is wise to stop using any words relating to sex, sexual anatomy or any kind of sexual innuendo.

Courts have ruled these comments made by the employees in the workplace were sexual harassment:

  1. You and I fight so much, we must have been married in our last life. How do you think our marriage was? I bet the sex was hot.
  2. I want to have an affair with you. I want to f*** you over your desk and chair till you scream.
Even innocuous language such as “honey”, “hun” or “sweetheart” could be considered sexual harassment if there is a pattern of such conduct.

Discriminatory words

Like comments of a sexual nature, comments that are discriminatory may also be ruled against the law. By this, we mean words that can be used to discriminate or vilify another on account of their disability, sexuality, race, religion, or age, like “queer”, “cripple”, “old grandad” or “towelhead”.

These type of comments made by employees have unsurprisingly been found to be unacceptable:

  1. You look like a Bombay Taxi Driver; and
  2. You f***ing black, lazy bastard;
There are obviously some socially unacceptable words that should never be used in any public space, but in the context of the workplace you need to be careful of your language as some words could cost you your job.

Written by Christie Toy on July 4, 2018. Last modified: August 31, 2018.

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