By Deborah J. Hopkins, October 30, 2023

When I was in high school in the 1990s, students would usually refer to something they thought was stupid or ridiculous by saying: “That’s so gay.” I cannot imagine such a phrase being used among my peers today. Socially acceptable language evolves over time. Looking back, I don’t think it was appropriate for people to use that phrase in that manner at all, but I can’t recall anyone ever challenging or correcting someone who said it.

A few weeks ago, I was teaching a class on Harassment Investigations, and the discussion turned to something in a similar arena — what to do when someone in the workplace uses terms that have an offensive history or offensive connotations.

I used the following example: The term “master bedroom” has been common in real estate for decades, but a few years ago it fell out of favor. While there’s no clear connection between the term “master bedroom” and slavery, the subtext is enough that the industry largely moved to stop using it, according to the New York Times. The first organization do so was the Houston Association of Realtors in June 2020. Countless other quickly followed suit. Now, terms such as “primary bedroom” or “owner’s bedroom” are considered more socially correct.

A lot of people are in the habit of using the term “master bedroom,” because they have for years, and I would bet that most of them don’t intend to be offensive. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to continue using terms in the workplace that others find offensive and that could rise to the level of a hostile work environment.

Other terms that have racist backgrounds but are still used commonly include:

  • Peanut gallery
  • Paddy wagon
  • Hip hip hooray
  • Cretin
  • Gypped
  • Off the reservation
  • Long time, no see
  • No can do

A quick Internet search will reveal dozens more, many beyond race. It’s my opinion that we should be open to understanding that acceptable language evolves over time. Rather than use the excuse “I don’t mean anything by it,” isn’t it just as easy to make an attempt to learn something new? Especially when workplace harassment is a very real issue?

One more point: There’s a difference between accidental slip-ups and intentional refusals to use the appropriate term: check out Jameson v. USPS, EEOC Appeal No. 120130992 (May 21, 2013); Royce O. v. Army, EEOC Appeal No. 2021001172 (Nov. 15, 2021), regarding workplace pronoun use. And join FELTG for Advanced EEO: Navigating Complex Issues Nov. 15-16 for much, much more on this topic. [email protected]


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