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We all know the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”. It was a chant we were taught as children, to be used when someone said something mean to us.

The truth is, most of us know that words do have the power to cause us tremendous pain.

So, it is not surprising that there is so much emotional language being thrown around by our Federal politicians right now. Politicians insulting each other is not a new phenomena, but is this current situation fundamentally different from other such spats?

The heart of the issue is whether or not Julia Gillard has been treated differently than previous Prime Ministers simply because of her gender. If this situation arose in any workplace in Australia, (other than our parliament of course), the employer would be compelled by law to investigate.

I have conducted many of these investigations in many different workplaces and by far the most common defence of an employee accused of saying something inappropriate, is that it was a ”joke”. Then of course the secondary chatter is always sneering at “political correctness” (an ironic term, given our current circumstances).

Julia probably started out with the high ground on this issue, because there were numerous examples of what would qualify as sexist remarks made about her (“ditch the witch” in particular). But then this week, she gave a speech warning a group of woman about “men in blue ties”. Was this sexist?

The implication of her statement was that if she left office, women’s welfare would depend entirely on the mercy of “men”. Their implied inability to behave rationally or reasonably is in question, simply because of their gender. So yes, this is sexist. In any other workplace, this would be unacceptable.

And then just as the Opposition looked like it might have been able to take the higher ground in this argument “The Menu” appeared. The Julia Gillard menu item had amongst other features, large thighs and small breasts and was being served at an Opposition fund raising dinner .

The defence, not surprisingly was that it was a “joke”. Further it was implied by Joe Hockey that it was a fair shot because Julia had called him a “fat man”. Then this morning, someone the Chef came out and claimed responsibility in an attempt to exonerate the politicians at the event.

In the workplace, that menu would have been deemed sufficiently offensive to warrant the most serious disciplinary action. Coming on the back of previous behaviour, the employer would have to seriously consider termination.

The “joke” defence just does not fly. The reason we find most jokes funny is because they do insult someone else. Who knows why, but that is what a lot of people find funny. It is kind of bullying with a smile! To claim we do not know that, is quite frankly, ridiculous. In this case, even more so, because the Chef has gone to great pains to explain it was never meant for public view. Clearly the man knew how offensive it was.

So in the workplace if a further person emerges to claim responsibility after the fact, would that change the outcome of the investigation? It could. In this case though, what would go against the accused employees is that they used the “joke” defence.

Had Joe Hockey reacted with horror when he was told about the menu; had he immediately offered to try and un-do the damage, the late confession would have probably got him off the hook. But he defended the menu by stating that Julia had called him a “fat man”. Not that I am condoning this insult either, but his retort in this context would indicate a lack of remorse on his part.

And bottom line, regardless of where the chef came from (employee, contractor or visitor), the employer would still be held responsible. It would never be sufficient for the employer to simply tell everyone to “move on”.

These are the standards by which every employer and employee are held accountable in Australia. You may agree with Alan Jones that this is “political correctness gone mad”. Personally, I believe these new rules are, at a basic level, simply good manners.

If I claim that an employee is incompetent it is my responsibility to provide objective evidence. If I followed our politicians’ lead however, I would obviously just start insulting the person on the basis of their gender or physical appearance. Until they felt so humiliated and offended that they left the workplace (or were bullied out by the other staff who joined in the mud slinging).

I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to work in any place like that. And quite frankly, I am sick to death of our politicians doing that. And, we are, at the end of the day their Employers.