It's the everyday things

Inappropriate behaviour

It’s the everyday things

The biggest challenge to ensuring an inclusive community isn’t the obviously illegal acts of discrimination. It’s the persistent, pervasive behaviours that fail to respect or value each other and our differences.

You might recognise some of these examples:

We make constant judgements about the things we say to different people, in different situations. We may feel comfortable with a bit of joking, teasing or sharing “funny” material.

But how do you know if what you’re doing is causing offence? Unless it is challenged, or you pick up on cues from other people’s reactions, you might never know.

So even though joking and banter may often be seen as contributing to a working environment where “you can have a laugh”, it may be causing offence and slowly taking its toll on others who do not want to be regarded as the “spoilsport”.

It’s all too easy to assume that the content and tone of our emails is clear. Or sometimes we may quickly reply to an email without really considering the impact it could have on the person reading it.

A good habit to get into is before you hit send, re-read your email and ask yourself:

“How would I feel if this was sent to me?”

You can also ask someone else to read through your email first to give you another view as to how it might be received.

People often think that diversity is just about minority groups. But we all have multiple characteristics, whether these are our age, gender, sexual orientation, faith, height, hair colour etc.

We are of course much more than just our characteristics but sometimes we get defined by them, particularly those that are visible, and sometimes being defined by a characteristic can cause offence.

For example: “you know, the gay one”, or “the girls in my team”.

A good rule of thumb when it comes to defining people is to swap one characteristic for another and see if what you’re doing still feels ok.

A teacher may greet a class with “Good morning boys and girls” but would they say “Good morning black, brown and white children”? A simple “Good morning class” is much better.

There are some characteristics that people may choose to keep to themselves, such as their sexual orientation, mental health status, gender reassignment, or faith and belief.

Even though some people may be open to work colleagues about these characteristics themselves, we all have a responsibility to respect the privacy of others who may decide not to discuss this part of their lives at work.

The Monday morning question along the lines of “Tell me all about your weekend, what did you do, who with”, may be considered as simply showing an interest but could also be considered intrusive by others who wish to keep certain characteristics private.

It is better to take the lead from others about how much they want to share about themselves.

We all make assumptions, our brains are designed to do so (see the Introduction to Unconscious Bias for more on this). If you make an assumption and you get it wrong, don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, you’ll be less likely to make the same assumption again.

Common assumptions people make include:

  • Sexual orientation: assuming that others are in the heterosexual majority;
  • Disability: assuming that all disabilities should be visible;
  • Social events and exclusion: assuming that others will not want to get involved in certain activities due to certain characteristics (e.g. their age or religious belief). Instead it is better to create activities that are inclusive as possible but also to let individuals decide whether to attend rather than playing out an assumption on their behalf.

Whilst attitudes towards certain characteristics have changed, sometimes the language associated with them hasn’t. Phrases are still in circulation which may not have been considered offensive in the past, but are now.

If you are in any doubt about whether a phrase is now appropriate, it's best not to use it. Or if there is someone that has let you know they have a certain characteristic, you can simply ask them. Remember that we are all unique though, so what may be ok for one person might not be for someone else. 

One of the areas where language is evolving is around people with health conditions. There is much more emphasis now on positive rather than negative language and not defining people by their medical condition. For example, saying “he has depression” is better than “he is a depressive” or “he suffers from depression”.

It’s about perception not intent

Any of the above behaviours may cause offence, and could even be considered as harassment.

The key point about harassment is that is not about whether there was intent to cause offence, it’s about the perception of the person experiencing it (how it makes them feel).

If someone feels that the behaviour of others violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, then it may be considered harassment, even if the other person didn’t intend their behaviour to have this effect*.

What to do if you experience or witness inappropriate behaviour

See our advice: Call itDiscuss itReport it

University consideration of harassment claims

*In considering whether conduct constitutes unlawful harassment, the University will take account of whether it is "unwelcome" or "offensive" to the person experiencing the conduct; whether it has the effect of violating their dignity; whether it creates an environment which is "intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive... for that person". The "perception" of the person experiencing the conduct is one of the factors which must be taken into account in making this judgement. The University will apply a Test of Reasonableness in responding to reports of harassment.

In summary, this means that harassment will have occurred if any independent, reasonable individual deems it to have occurred.