Canterbury says "wash your mouth out with soap"

Canterbury Council's general manager Jim Montague is spearheading a drive back to Victorian England by introducing new standards for communication amongst employees. Paralleling the genteelism of a previous era (and an ethnocentric focus on nice white Anglo-Saxons), when they preferred the word "unmentionables" to the word "underwear", Jim has decided that the words "attractive" and "petite" are a breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct. And so is the expression "high maintenance". What the?

You can expect lots of potty-mouth employees having their mouths washed out by HR with this new standard.

We accept the view that a cultured and advanced society communicates in a cultured and sensitive way. Whether language is acceptable or unacceptable is usually in the eye of the beholder and fundamentally appropriate or inappropriate only when it is placed in context.

Canterbury is caught up and confused about language. There are some contexts that come with a language warning. Without pandering too much to stereotypes, the language used out on the road in a gang is generally stronger than that used by professional employees. But professional employees are quite capable of getting down and dirty with the best of them, and it is appropriate if the context is right. It might be okay in the pub but it's not okay with Grandma.

We just went through an exercise of an investigation of a member after a complaint was made at Canterbury. The area in which the member works was formerly housed in the depot where, regardless of sensitivities, it was all very blokey and outdoors. A move to the administrative centre at Belmore a couple of years ago saw our member, amongst others, issuing some guidelines about the new etiquette and the new context. Steps were taken regularly to ask the fruity communicators to take it outside.

depa would support any council that wanted to initiate an educational program to improve the quality of communication at work. It would be developed through the Consultative Committee, union reps on the Consulted Committee would be communicating with their members and when the new standards were introduced, everyone could get on board.

There could be a swear jar in every office. Gosh, what a great idea.

But the idea that a new standards is to be adopted, as it has at Canterbury, and then the new standard applied retrospectively, is fundamentally unfair. A bit like retrospectively imposing an 80 km speed limit in an area that was previously 100 km and then booking people who exceeded 80 when it was legal to do so. No one would think that acceptable.

Canterbury, we expect on poor HR advice, has decided that innocent and inoffensive words like "petite" and "attractive" breach those sections of the Code of Conduct which require sensitive dealings with each other. Simple words describing the physical appearance of people or things. We thought those sections of the Code were intended to deal with misogyny, racism, homophobia and prejudice, not words that we would happily use to our grandmother.

So, beware. While these new words are regarded as a breach of the Code for our particular member, the Council has not taken any steps to advise employees that they too may fall victim to the new regime. This is unfair and means that every employee of the Council is now at risk.

We are asking the Council to reconsider. We are also asking them to join together in a cooperative program to improve the quality of language and a place - an invitation extended more than a month ago and which was ignored at the time.

And while the Division of Local Government is busy reviewing the Code of Conduct to see whether is too prescriptive, or not prescriptive enough, we think they would be amused that management at Canterbury is trying to recreate a Victorian parlour with prim prigs, clutching their lavender-scented hankies and taking tea - pinkies extended.  And then the professionals, the rangers and parking officers can go out and deal with ratepayers and applicants! That will be a culture shock.

In the meantime, as we ask the Council to reconsider this folly, it is time to revive "gosh" and "gee”, even though my mum more than half a century ago taught me that they were blasphemous and, when you think about it, this could even breach the Code as well. Just about the silliest thing we've seen in local government for many, many years.

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