Why We Need to Use Safe Words at Work



First, I know many of you immediately thought of 50 Shades of Grey or some other BDSM image when you saw this headline. I don’t blame you or judge you. In fact, when I attempted to crowdsource the answer of whether it’s “safeword” or “safe word” from my friends on Facebook, I learned more about them than I bargained for. So, I think it’s “safe” to say, exercising the use of safe words (my spell checker won the debate, by the way), is something most of us know a bit about.


For those of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, safe words are agreed upon signals used when one person wants to let another person know that a boundary is approaching or will be crossed, whether it’s moral, physical, or emotional. It’s the “Okay, we’re getting close to the edge and I’m starting to get uncomfortable” statement boiled down to one, sometimes nonsensical word that would not normally be uttered in the context of the present moment, like “pineapple.” Or, as I unwittingly discovered, one of my friend’s favorites, “meatloaf,” because he would do anything for love, but he won’t do that that. I didn’t press for the details on what “that” was, by the way, so your guess is as good as mine.


Now, once we get our heads out of the gutters, we see that safe words are also used in other areas of our lives. For example, they are used in play and sports to help competitors avoid the risk of serious injuries such as yelling “uncle” while in headlock or calling for a “truce.” In more conventional athletics, I would say that asking for a “time-out” is a universal safe word because it allows a team or player to take a break and regroup or to stop the momentum in the action.


But whether it’s the bedroom or the locker room, safe words work because there is an agreement between all parties to respect the boundary, wherever it is for that person, and when the safe word is dropped, that means the rip cord has been pulled. There are no questions asked, no judgements made, and no pressures to the other person to violate their boundary. Because when “No” does sometimes mean “Maybe,” the safe word, on the other hand, is a 100-percent full stop.


The Case for Safe Words at Work

So, let’s put this in the context of work and in particular meetings where there are spreadsheets instead of bedsheets. People often don’t think about the fact that meetings can be emotionally unsafe places. Or on the other hand, they do expect them to be that way and believe they can’t do anything about it. But let’s suppose you are the kind of leader or organization with a desire to have a healthy culture built on trust, emotional safety, and maybe even a sense of humor. Then, introducing the idea of the safe word into meetings shouldn’t be too difficult.


The first step to doing this is to become trauma informed or trauma sensitive which involves understand how certain settings can be triggering and even re-traumatizing for some people in your organization. It also includes knowing that the group dynamics that evolve from people’s unique personalities coupled with varying communication styles, layered on top of the content of the meeting makes for fertile ground for triggering some people in the group.


Triggers are our bodies physical responses to a sense of threat or danger, and it results in the activation of our “fight or flight” response. What triggers people are based on a variety of factors from a person’s age, their personality, intelligence and, most importantly, their prior history of trauma. But triggers can also be activated by the tone of environment and if a person feels vulnerable or has support from co-workers. And finally, triggers can be activated by a person’s relationship to the perpetrator or person who has set off the triggering comment or body language, especially if the perpetrator has power over that person, like a manager or supervisor.


How important is trauma informed leadership in business? Well, estimates from research in the field of childhood trauma and adverse experiences tell us that over half of us have a legitimate history of the kinds of traumatic experiences that impact us as adults at work. So, a trauma informed leader already knows that half of their team may have a few landmines that they themselves may not be aware of.


So, being trauma informed also means that you not only know where your own emotionally safe boundaries are, but you understand that they won’t be the same for other people. And because it’s impossible to even know everything about ourselves, let alone everyone else, this is where the safe word idea comes in.


Now, I can hear the argument from some of you that you don’t want people cutting meetings off every time they get upset because it would be disruptive and counterproductive due to the fact that dealing with bad news is a business staple, which is true. But will it really be counterproductive?


Because the truth is, once a person’s “fight or flight” system has been activated, they are no longer in a frame of mind that allows them to participate in the meeting at their best capacity. And if you have a meeting with most of your people either simmering or shivering in their seats while someone is standing up front, going off on everyone, your meeting is over anyways.


The reasons why lie in neuroscience and research that’s found that the part of the brain that used for executive functions like problem solving is shut down or muted when someone is triggered, and the primal parts of the brain which are focused on safety have taken over. In other words, your triggered team is not thinking clearly, and the meeting is pointless at best, torturous and re-traumatizing at worst.


Tips for Setting Up a Safe Word Policy

Creating a Safe Word Policy in your company should be a co-creative process with the entire team and begins with a discussion about the purpose of the policy and why your organization wants to create one. Then, the team should have some fun coming up with what the safe words should be and set the guidelines for how and when they are used. This is not the same as setting what the boundaries are, because as I stated, those are unique to each person. Instead, this is deciding on rules like should a person be able to interrupt someone else or wait until for an appropriate break in the discussion to use the safe word? Or will the company opt for visual signals in combination with verbal cues, like signaling for a time-out or raising a red-colored card?


The policy may include options for the person who is at their threshold to leave the meeting while everyone else continues or the organization agrees to at least a 10-minute break any time the safe word is used and re-group to decide the appropriate next steps.


The final step in developing the Safe Word Policy is especially important and that is to have the team also create and agree upon the penalties for a safe word violation. In other words, what happens if a person uses the safe word and the meeting leader or anyone on the team continues or objects? Because as we know, safe words are called safe because they are respected, even if we personally feel differently about the situation. Honoring them is how we earn the highest form of trust from our partners and our colleagues. And if someone violates that trust, there should be a consequence.


A Safe Word Policy May Protect You from Harassment Claims

In the privacy of our homes and relationships, the protections we have against a person who does something to us that violates our safety are in criminal code. At work however, abusive or harassing behaviors are sometimes less clear to identify and to prosecute. But if there is a company anti-harassment policy already in effect, adding the violation of the Safe Word Policy as prohibited conduct would certainly put some additional teeth behind it and give your HR team something to work with.


The other side of the trust coin is that the team must agree to withhold judgements against any person who drops the safe word. Meaning that employees who use it won’t receive any backlash from co-workers or supervisors. There are multiple benefits for this, and one is that sometimes a good use of the safe word is not necessarily when you are feeling triggered but when someone else is communicating in an aggressive and threatening way and they need to chill out for a second.


And here’s another thing: you can give everyone the chance to use the safe word in the meeting, with clear policy guidelines that protect people from penalties or backlash, but there are people who won’t use them even if they should. That’s because some people’s history of trauma is so deeply seated, they will still be afraid to assert themselves and call attention to their personal discomfort.


And that is not good for them or your business. Employees who don’t feel safe in your organization will eventually leave but before they do, their productivity will tank as their loyalty to your organization silently erodes away.


Therefore, just like in sports, your organization might also want some pseudo-referees. In my book, The Fearless Woman’s Guide to Starting a Business, I refer to these people as Shepherds. Now in sports, a referee is an impartial observer to the action while a Shepherd, on the other hand, can be anyone in your organization, playing the game with everyone else.


Your company’s Shepherds are simply assertive communicators with great emotional and social intelligence skills who are empowered to speak up for others. Like Shepherds guarding the flock against wolves, these are people who can spot danger or take notice of a colleague who is clearly upset but frozen, and if need be, throw the safe word out themselves like a ref tossing a penalty flag on the field.


In the end, we as leaders need to remember that people want to be connected with each other and have fulfilling personal and professional relationships. And just like at home, we are able and even willing to add a little danger, uncertainty, and tolerable risk to our lives so that we can grow.


But at work, we must do a better job of putting up guardrails that allow us all to do our best work and achieve our highest sense of satisfaction and safety. And the trauma informed leaders who recognize this will see nothing but benefits for their team and the organization’s mission if they raise the stakes in creating emotionally safe meetings for everyone while holding those who violate that safety accountable, including themselves.



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