A Rant on Derogatory Language

As I continue to help more startups in Austin, TX, and beyond, I want to go on a bit of a rant. There is simply too much derogatory language in business and there is no place for it.

I’ve noticed some people at startups I’m helping use the word “girl” to describe young women in their business. This is, without a doubt, an innocent practice. But it is wrong nonetheless, and I’ve heard older women in these businesses say it too. Maybe it is collegiate, in a way, but when have you heard anyone in a business describe one of their young male workers as a “boy”? You don’t hear it, do you?

As bad as the term “girl” is in business, I’m not sure it is as bad as the dehumanizing terms of body parts used by some businesses to describe their people. Let’s start with the age-old term “head count” or “heads.” What the hell is that? These are people with all of their body parts intact. Didn’t you say people are the most important part of your business? Are you chopping off their heads? What about the terms “butts-in-seats” or “bodies,” which sounds like you are in a morgue? Or “belly buttons”? You’ve probably heard more.

I’m sure this is innocent and just bad habit, perhaps learned from large companies. I think the bigger the business, the less human it tends to become. If you are an executive of a big business, where you cannot possibly remember everyone’s name as you walk around the halls, it is easy to think of business as a big “machine” instead of the very human, personal thing that it really is.

But there are no excuses—a lot of bad habits dehumanize African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and many other people. Those are being killed, so let’s kill this bad habit in business.

Let’s set the right tone from the top. One person that can rail against this “machine-ness” is the CEO. If the CEO sets the tone, as I wrote about in my Lucky7 post on the seven lessons learned from founder to CEO, then the rest of the executive team should follow. If people are your most important asset, then treat your people the way you, yourself would want to be treated. Would you want to be called a “head” or a “butt-in-seat” by anyone, especially your superior? You are a person, and they are too.

Should you choose to accept this mission to eliminate derogatory language from your organization, here is an email that may serve as a draft for your cause.  I wrote to all of our managers at Bazaarvoice in March 2012, one month after we went public:

Subject: People vs. headcount – words matter

Team,

As our company gets bigger and more “successful,” it is easy to forget how we got here. And it is especially easy to start thinking that we are turning nobs and dials of one big corporate machine. We have to fight this habit, and it starts with the way we treat and talk about our people.

RESPECT

We are a company of equals.

We value difference.

We are people first, roles second.

Why did we craft this value two years ago? Because it represented the best of how we had evolved up until that point. And RESPECT is as important now as it was back then. Actually, it is even more important now that we are public. Our PERFORMANCE matters more than ever and that starts with all of our great people stepping up to perform like never before.

From here on out, I want all of you as our leaders to refer to our great people as exactly that—people. We are not headcount; we are not resources; we are not heads, bodies, bellybuttons, butts-in-seats, or any other body part; we are people—working here under our own free will and determined to change the world, one authentic conversation at a time. If you must adhere to corporate speak because of your past programming, then feel free to use the word employees at times. But I would prefer people to be top of mind in your Bazaarvoice corporate vocabulary.

And don’t ever forget— what retains great people most is respect of their peers (A players who also live our values), their boss (A players who set the leadership example and cultural tone—i.e., all of YOU), and the company’s mission and performance.

Now that we are public, we must commit to our values like never before. I need your help in that recommitment and while language may seem too stylistic, it matters. There have been many words used throughout history to refer to people that no one viewed as “malicious” at the time because of the cultural norms of the day, but they really mattered and as we look back now with hindsight we are shocked they were ever used—perhaps you yourself have been the target of these words. The golden rule is to treat people, regardless of their differences, as you yourself would want to be treated.

http://www.bazaarvoice.com/jobs/culture

Thanks, Brett

I would love to hear your thoughts below and whether you plan to accept this challenge. If you disagree with me, please let me know why.

Editor’s note: Be sure to visit Brett’s Lucky7 blog and the original version of this post to read the many comments that it generated there.

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