Leaders never use terms of endearment at work

I live in eastern Oklahoma and often shop in western Arkansas. This is a part of the country where informal speech and speech patterns are the norm. It’s common, for example, to hear store clerks address customers as “honey” or “sweetie.”

For some people that might not be a problem, but I’ve always felt denigrated when a total stranger calls me sweetie. It’s patronizing at best, and downright insulting at worst.

And when I hear a supervisor or manager — a leader — address employees in such a way, it really sets my teeth on edge. Employees should be treated with respect. Doing otherwise could lead to a sexual harassment or discrimination charge, not to mention being patronizing.

So here are some basic guidelines for leaders who want to be seen as professionals in their communication with employees and customers.

In a work situation, never call others sweetie, honey, sweetheart, darling (darlin’ in the South), or baby (babe). These terms of endearment are fine when used privately with those you love, like a spouse, significant other, or child. They are never okay when used in public with employees or customers.

Never curse or swear at employees or customers. It’s a sign of disrespect, and also a sign of ignorance. Find another way to express your frustration. I fondly remember one manager who would shout “Hot Diggety Dog!” when he was angry or frustrated. The laughter that followed helped reduce tension and improve problem solving. And his professionalism was never compromised.

If you’re new to management, follow the example of people in senior leadership positions in your company. My bet is that you’ll never hear one of them use inappropriate terms of endearment at work. If you do, give them a copy of this blog!

Listen to commentators on the television news, especially major channels. It’s extremely unusual to hear a public speaker use a swear word. They find other ways to emphasize their points. You should do the same. There are exceptions, of course; there always are. But the rule is no swearing or cursing, and it’s a good one.

Remember that as a leader, other people are looking to you as their example of professional behavior. Make sure your example is a good one.

About Pat Kelley, MS, SPHR

Pat Kelley, MS, SPHR, is the author of three non-fiction books, including the Second Edition of Hiring Right: A Business Blueprint for Lower Turnover and Higher Profits. She is a retired Human Resources Director with more than 40 years' experience. Certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources, she is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Society for Human Resource Management.
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