Can certain words at work get you in trouble?
March 20, 2017 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Someone at work was joking around and said that he “needs a SWAT team”. My other coworker mentioned that using the word SWAT is inappropriate to use in the workplace since the W in SWAT stands for “weapons” and in today’s news, there are a lot of crazy things happening. And I told him that he is crazy, it’s totally fine to use that term. But he then went ahead and said that it refers to violence, and anyone who uses the word SWAT at work in that way can get in trouble, and possibly lose their job. He also says that any other word that refers to violence can get someone in trouble. What does everyone else think?
posted by four_suyu to Work & Money (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're right and he's wrong, but arguing about it with him did neither of you any good.
posted by Bruce H. at 4:22 PM on March 20 [36 favorites]

I never heard of anything like that.
posted by maurreen at 4:25 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

He's crazier than a bedbug.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:25 PM on March 20 [24 favorites]

Was he being sincere and pearl-clutchy or "it's political correctness gone mad!"-y?

In either case I think Bruce H. has it, but I'm curious.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:26 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]

Your coworker is taking an extremely literal approach to the perfectly good idea of avoiding violent or threatening language in the workplace. If this were to be followed to its logical extreme, then people could be fired for joking that their workload is "killing" them, or for saying that they're going to "shoot" someone an email. Our language simply cannot be policed like this.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 4:26 PM on March 20 [33 favorites]

Hmmm. I think that your second co-worker is overstating the case, but I can see where he's coming from. I don't think the issue is that the W in SWAT stands for weapons. I think it's that the reason you'd need the SWAT team would be for some sort of active shooter situation, and that's something that workplaces are on edge about and might not consider a joking matter. I have been known to make that kind of joke, but I would probably only make it with people who I knew and could gauge their sensitivity/ stick-up-the-nether-regions-ness about such stuff.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:27 PM on March 20 [7 favorites]

How did your coworker convey these thoughts without using any words that refer to violence?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:33 PM on March 20 [7 favorites]

your co-worker is either bonkers or trying to make some weird and ill-thought-out point. Either way you can ignore him/her on this.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:35 PM on March 20 [9 favorites]

I guess I sort of wonder how metaphorical this talk was. I don't think anyone would object to "shoot someone an email." There was a controversy last year about a person high up in the organization at which I work saying that workers who did something "should be shot." It was a somewhat complicated situation (unpopular new manager who was perceived to be out-of-touch; a workplace that was pretty traumatized years ago by a mass shooting in which several people were killed), but publicly joking about violence didn't go over well in that situation, even though nobody thought that the unpopular new honcho was actually advocating violence.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:43 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

Agree with the bananapants diagnosis.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:46 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

I mean, yes this is a bit extreme, but on the other hand, if your workplace wanted to be extreme and crazy, it would be totally legal for them to make this rule and police it and fire you for using it. They shouldn't, because that's nuts, but if the question is could your workplace get you in trouble for this, if they wanted, the answer is yes.
posted by brainmouse at 4:49 PM on March 20

I use the phrase "hit it like a swat team" both at work and in common parlance, to indicate we are going to be on top of it and bring great energy. I can not recall anyone freaking out over it.
posted by vrakatar at 4:50 PM on March 20

Our annual legal training warns us to not write anything that implies action, especially violent action, against competitors, e.g. "dominate the market" or "crush the competition", and instead to focus on how we will provide customers with a better experience etc etc. Maybe he's thinking of this but broadening the scope inappropriately?
posted by batter_my_heart at 4:54 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

We used to have an IT team called the SWAT team - supporting workers at terminals. That was a long time ago. Your coworker is nuts.
posted by fixedgear at 4:57 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Your coworker is likely wrong. This does depend somewhat on your workplace, but not much. That said, whether your coworker is suffering from a mental illness is a more up-in-the-air issue and people have similar concerns about throwing around the word "crazy". One of the things about language policing generally is that there have to be some norms established. The norms on MetaFilter will not be the same as the norms for an elementary school. This is entirely dependent on where you work.
posted by jessamyn at 4:58 PM on March 20 [7 favorites]

I'd ignore him. He's either not completely in touch with reality or being a "everybody's all PC now" troll. *Or* possibly he has poor social skills and got in trouble for some language he used at work and was advised "just don't use any kind of violent terms at all, ever" because he had difficulty deciphering what's okay to say and work and what's not.

If you're genuinely concerned about what you can say at work, see if there's an employee handbook and refer to that. But don't try to argue the point with this guy.
posted by bunderful at 5:40 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Eh, I'm not 100% comfortable picturing a phalanx of armed people storming my workplace, but I wouldn't object to the term unless it was used consistently. And I wouldn't presume to say that someone would be fired for that kind of imagery unless I was directly in control of that outcome (and if I was, I wouldn't fire someone for this kind of thing).

Calling someone crazy, bonkers, or nuts is equally or more problematic in my opinion.
posted by delight at 5:41 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]

I was more bothered by you calling people "crazy." But who knows, maybe coworker has some personal experience that makes them sensitive to this, just drop it and try to quit talking about SWAT teams around them.
posted by momus_window at 5:41 PM on March 20 [5 favorites]

It depends on where you work and with whom.

Is this person a veteran? Does violence occur in the workplace or do your clients experience it? Are you in a trauma-informed organization?

I'd just say sorry and not say SWAT around him anymore in that context.

You may be right that it's not really a bad word to use in your shared context. But you can also admit it's not the among the most anti-violence words. It goes a little way toward normalizing a tactically violent response to a problem. At least, more than other words might. Not that that's awful. But it's there.

I don't use it personally in the way you describe. I wouldn't get in trouble at work. It just isn't in the vernacular because we're all pacifists or something. At a former job I can imagine people would have used it because more of us were military-positive.

In trauma-informed settings or organizations I'd personally take care to avoid it.
posted by ramenopres at 5:43 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone else, but I also think you should ask your HR department.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:13 PM on March 20

Our local hospital has a SWAT team - nurses, respiratory therapists and physicians who come evaluate a deteriorating patient.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:38 PM on March 20

We have SWAT teams to address issues in teapot development. This is in a context where we are at least somewhat sensitive to language. A candidate suggested in an interview should have a "Teapot Nazi" to ensure quality control in the teapot development lab, akin to Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi". We drew the line there and passed on the candidate.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:44 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Given that the practice of malicious swatting is a very real, non-hypothetical problem that police departments have to spend money on these days, and which puts people at risk, I wouldn't dismiss this as just talk...
posted by gusandrews at 7:28 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Completely depends on your workplace. Do they have a strict no tolerance policy? What may be completely innocuous at one company can get you fired at another. No one here but you has read the company handbook at your job, and no one else here is familiar with the office culture where you work. I would not necessarily dismiss this incident as an over reaction.
posted by HMSSM at 7:39 PM on March 20

To be sure, there's been a lot of media coverage about swatting, negative outcomes and (WARNING: graphic images/violence, NYTimes video:)coverage of SWAT team actions, and the word "SWAT" calls to mind law enforcement officers driving in militarized vehicles and equipped and armed with intimidating military gear and weapons. One could argue that that's the point of SWAT, and I'm not denying that SWAT team responses can be justified and necessary. It's just that there's a whole lot of baggage associated with it.

What was the purpose of "need[ing] a SWAT team?" Is there another phrase or term that could be used that a) might be less concerning, and b) equally empowering or badass?

For example: at the hospitals I'm familiar with, there are special response teams for different situations, apart from the standard "CODE BLUE." There are "Alpha" teams and "Bravo" teams, which are arguably similar to and rooted in the military. I would argue that they're still badass. Shoot, any team name can sound badass, because hey, you're part of a select, perhaps elite, team.

We changed the name of wheeled computers from "COWS" (Computers On Wheels) to "WOWS" (Workstations On Wheels) after it was pointed out that patients and families may mishear or misconstrue things such that they believed we were referring to them as cows, or obese.

But more than all this, context matters. Why was "needs a SWAT team" said, to what end, and to whom? In some workplace settings, even what would seem like benign phrases said with the most benign intent could get one in trouble.

And yes, to answer your question, certain words can absolutely get you in trouble, even if the intent is benign. Case in point: I had a colleague who was born in another country, is a US citizen, and speaks fine English. He just didn't understand a lot of colloquialisms. We'd be at work, and it'd be really busy, and i'd talk with him and asked him how things were going:

"Dood. I'm totally hammered."
- Uh, where are you?
"On the fourth floor unit."
- Are people around?
"Yes, yes. It's crazy! Everyone's so busy and I've been hammered all day!"
- You can't say that, man.
- People will think you're drunk.
"...Oh. Shhhiii-oooot."

Another time, we were in a common area in the hospital, and he was talking about how much noise and people there were the other evening near his house. It had been the 4th of July. He said, "OH! SO THAT'S WHY THERE WERE SO MANY CRACKERS IN THE PARK!" He had meant fireworks/firecrackers.

So yeah, words at work matter. Had the staff not known him well, they may have thought that he was a) drunk, and b) racist, when he is neither.
posted by herrdoktor at 9:09 PM on March 20 [6 favorites]

You can always go with HRT, the FBI's "Hostage Rescue Team," which is a SWAT team that lives behind an Orwellian moniker.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:33 PM on March 20

Can certain words at work get you in trouble?

Sure -- but SWAT isn't one of them. Would the co-worker object to your use of a fly SWATter, to violently take out our evil insect enemies? Maybe...but so what.
posted by Rash at 9:38 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]

Just a random thought: your co-worker hasn't got completely the wrong end of the stick regarding non-violent communication, have they?
posted by parm at 3:27 AM on March 21

If someone said to me at work that they needed a swat team for a project, I would assume they meant a highly focused and experienced group that could manage it quickly.
posted by brilliantine at 4:29 AM on March 21

This is incorrect and weird but best handled by nodding, changing the subject, then complaining to your non-work friends later.

One thing that is important to note though: If a coworker expresses that they are uncomfortable with something you're saying, however weird or clumsy their expression of this discomfort is, take note, and take time to think about whether your general style or specific speech should be adjusted to make this person more comfortable or to generally come off differently in your workplace.
posted by latkes at 8:21 AM on March 21 [3 favorites]

I'm on team "your coworker is wrong about this" but also, of course certain words at work can get you in trouble.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:39 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]

Hyperbole (even when cleverly built) will always have its detractors, especially among the more literal of thinkers. Your co-worker seems beyond vigilant, probably more in the Twilight Zone section of the peanut gallery. But hyperbole usually will have its roots in reality. Some words can cut certain people deeply while to others they may be only a colorful metaphor. That badly-conceived project is an abortion. We all live in a world of flying knives.

If your workplace will punish you for using SWAT as a metaphor, find out now, and try to discover whether other similar landmines await you. It's not up to you to fix your literal-minded co-worker, but you need to know whether you are the only sighted person in the country of the blind. (Well, there I go again.)
posted by mule98J at 12:27 PM on March 21

File the incident with HR and let all parties know. Say the strange altercation made you uncomfortable since everyone seemed to have different opinions, and you want everyone to have that on record.
posted by semaphore at 10:34 AM on March 26

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