I was chatting to two businessmen the other day – one in his late 50s, the other in his late 60s – when I suddenly realised that I’ve become overexposed to casual sexism.
Now, I’m going to assume that this is an occupational hazard of working in the industries I work in, but during the conversation I recognised how desensitised I am to sexism in a business context.
The chat was about renting office space, and half an hour into the conversation, the guy in his late 60s expressed his pleasant surprise that they were dealing with such a pretty lady.
I took the compliment and the conversation moved on.
Half an hour after that, out of nowhere this time, the elderly gent said “You have to understand that I come from a generation where the prettiness of a woman is more important than is what is in her head”!
I was a little bit taken aback, but in true “getting what I want” mode, I successfully sidestepped the compliment/insult and moved into a discussion about how what’s in an employee’s head is far more important than what they look like.
Now, I took it as banter, albeit, really too close to the line.
However the real revelation was when I told my team about it, including our male intern.
Unsurprisingly really, they were up in arms, threatening to go and have a “chat” with him and bring him into 2018, and it was this reaction that made me realise that I am more used to these types of comments in business than I should be.
In my role, I have to be able to deal with it, and “put up with”, at least to a certain extent.
But an employee doesn’t.
If the guy had said the same thing to one of his employees, they’d have had a good case against him in tribunal, either citing discrimination, constructive dismissal, or both.
You see, it’d be easy for an employee to use those words and claim they didn’t get a pay rise or promotion because they weren’t ‘pretty enough’.
It’s vital that any ‘banter’ you use in the workplace doesn’t come back and bite you, regardless of your generation or gender.
When it comes to employment law, there is no such thing as “banter” as a defence. If you say something and the others don’t find it funny, then it isn’t funny.
We have just dismissed a head chef from a golf club who habitually referred to the potwash as “little gay boy”, even though, as far as anyone knows, he is not little or gay.
Sure, he meant it as ‘banter’, but regardless of the potwash’s sexuality, it’s discrimination. And it opened up the Club to the potential of thousands of pounds of potential tribunal awards, so he had to go.
Remember, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your organisation!