Another update from the Jungle…
Ted runs a company that provides website and social media support for small businesses. Ted grew up in the advertising business when it looked a bit like “Mad Men” and some of his habits are outdated. His most annoying habit is using nicknames.
Employees recognize Ted’s professional skills and ability to get customers to sign on the dotted line. Nicknames are part of the package when working for Ted. After all, every workplace has annoyances.
One employee is Italian-American and was nicknamed Guido because he looks like an extra in the Godfather movies. Another employee is Mario, short for Mario Andretti, because he’s gotten some speeding tickets. Blondie is an attractive woman who was hired long ago and keeps everyone on task.
Then there’s Tom, the first person Ted hired when he started the business. Tom is the only employee called by his real name and he’s so valuable to the team that Ted made him a partner in the business. Ted calls him Uncle Tom.
Recently, Ted agreed with his team that they needed to give back to the community by offering an internship to local college students. Judy is the first intern they hire. She’s a marketing major with an endless curiosity about all aspects of the business and a willingness to learn. Ted calls her the Elephant’s Child, after another inquisitive youngster. Judy isn’t familiar with Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories and thinks Ted’s nickname is demeaning.
Two weeks into her internship, Judy hears Ted shout “Uncle Tom” and sees the only black employee heading for Ted’s office. She’s appalled. She tells Blondie that she can’t work for a racist like Ted and wants out of the internship immediately.
What should Blondie do next?
- She can tell Judy that real world workplaces don’t come with college “safe zones” to avoid offending people. Succeeding in business requires a thick skin.
- She can tell Judy that offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder and if Tom’s not protesting, then Judy shouldn’t either.
- She can tell Ted that he needs to join the 21st century and recognize that some of the things he learned “back in the day” are no longer acceptable.
The legal standard for deciding offensiveness is based on reasonableness. Would a reasonable person hearing a nickname, their own or a co-worker’s, be offended? The answer depends on the specific situation. However, a nickname can be in poor taste even if it doesn’t rise to the level of violating any equal protection laws.
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