When does friendly tip into over familiar in business?

In the litigious world we live in today, it’s a mine field that as an employer you need to be mindful of with the potential of harassment claims, regardless of intent. When I meet new people I stick out my hand and introduce myself: ‘Hi I’m Cat Macdonald’. I don’t expect them to call me sweetheart in return – well certainly not when at a business networking event that’s for sure!

I was at such an event recently. On the whole, they were a nice bunch of chaps all trying to pass each other business and all with their hearts and businesses in the right place. So why did one feel it appropriate to call me, a fellow business owner ‘sweetheart’ as he patted my back to move me out of the way so he could get to his breakfast sandwich, and when I stood up to introduce myself, questioning whether I should stand, another greeted me with the retort of ‘well you can sit here instead’ patting his knee!

I’m certainly no wall flower and nor the overly sensitive or squeamish type, but that just isn’t acceptable to me (and I assume many other female business owners out there).

It brings to mind Karren Brady when she appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories program and the relish she displayed as she remembered selling a player to Crewe three days after he’d wise cracked her on the team bus, asking her to show him her, um, assets! Sadly I didn’t have that kind of come back in this particular situation, but she didn’t accept his crude remark, and nor would I. It’s demeaning, derogatory, dismissive, inappropriate and mostly certainly wrong for in a ‘work’ environment.

So what can you do to firstly prevent such ‘cheek’, to protect your staff if they are on the receiving end, to ensure your employees don’t feel they are able to step over that line, and to ensure all your company’s communications are appropriate in tone and delivery? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has a guide that outlines that it is about the following:

• defining the positive behaviours we can all expect from each other
• everyone accepting responsibility for their behaviour and actions
• everyone accepting responsibility for finding solutions
• ‘top team’ behaviour – vital in reinforcing positive behaviours and creating a culture that goes beyond paying lip service to fairness.

You should also create ‘an atmosphere in which the organisation and its leaders have a clear vision and sense of what a culture of dignity and respect would be like in practice’.

So how in practice would that work?

Well for a start, devise and implement a policy and procedure for everyone to understand and share. Outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Help make your staff understand how their actions/words are interpreted. Within this try and encourage everyone not to tolerate such casualness if it is not in your culture. This clarity of the standards of language and actions expected makes it easier for all individuals to be fully aware of their responsibilities to others. Then ensure the procedure is clear on how to make complaints, and how to deal with them if/when they arise. Ensure everyone in the business knows about it and it is fully supported.

And then promote a culture that you are happy with, and that your staff feel comfortable. It’s your brand, your business, your standards that you must share and practise to make it ‘real’ for everyone else.

Then, finally, don’t forget that with so much of today’s business communications being in written forms – websites, social media, marketing literature – you should also articulate expectations for that. It’s not only the words but the tone in which a company communicates being increasingly important. We all know that so much of what we say really comes down to how we say it. The same choice of words can come across as either complimentary or insulting. Ultimately, it’s all in the delivery. Deciphering a written communication’s tone isn’t easy. The handling and implementation of any social media forum is fraught with potentially explosive minefields. So again a clear set of guidelines can make the difference between a successful exchange or an inappropriate one.

Right – rant over, I feel better having got that off my, um, assets! But please let me know if you agree (or not!) more help and advice about such HR issues or contact us at www.threedomsolutions.co.uk or follow us on twitter @3domSolutions

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