2 min read

What the #%&*!?

What the #%&*!?

Profanity in the Workplace: Harmless Jargon or Gateway to Harassment?

Suppose you’re an HR Manager who has just received a complaint from an employee that their coworker has a “mouth like a sailor,” and they are constantly “dropping F-bombs.” The complainant finds the swearing offensive. What do you do? You don’t have a policy that addresses profanity. They aren’t accusing the person of harassment or even bullying.

Situations like these are all too common in the workplace. Some individuals use colorful language to express themselves and intend no harm to their conversation partners. Yet others have learned at an early age never to swear, particularly in public, and certainly never in the workplace. 

Even experts are divided on the topic. Studies have shown that some swearing at work may even be healthy—for instance, letting a curse word slip during intense feelings of frustration can act as a pressure valve and help relieve stress. It may also facilitate comradery amongst coworkers. As Michael Adams explains in his book In Praise of Profanity, “Bad words are unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk. ... We like to get away with things and sometimes we do so with like-minded people.” But a 2015 CareerBuilder.com survey found that 81% of employers felt that swearing at work “brings an employee’s professionalism into question.” Some may view those who frequently curse as uneducated or disrespectful. Profanity may also be a precursor to bullying or harassment complaints, especially when the language is directed at another person. James O’Connor, author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing, explains, “…swearing at a coworker can intensify conflict. Swearing in front of a customer can be a bad reflection on the employee and the company’s reputation. And chronic cursers who swear for no particular reason and don’t know any adjective other than variations on the F-word are no fun to work with.” 

So, what are employers to do? Should they ban profanity in the workplace altogether? Not necessarily. Here are three steps to addressing bad language in your workplace:

  1. Consider if profanity has a place in your workplace culture. Professional settings are less amenable to informal language, especially those where customer interactions are frequent. Conversely, industries like manufacturing, aerospace, or blue-collar workplaces have historically embraced colorful language. Additionally, swearing might be more acceptable in some parts of the country than others or in larger metropolitan cities over small towns. The level of profanity acceptance in your workplace may determine your next course of action.

  2. Reinforce the expectation of respectful communication. It’s important to distinguish between casual (“Oh, S*#$%!”) or even positive swearing (“This project is f*#$%ing awesome!”) and disrespectful language directed at a coworker—and the latter must be addressed. Employers can remind their employees of the expectation to treat coworkers with respect by implementing a Bullying in the Workplace and Standards of Conduct Policy. An Anti-Harassment Policy should provide employees with instructions for reporting behavior that they find offensive.

  3. Treat chronic cursors on a case-by-case basis. It’s difficult—if not impossible—to create a sweeping anti-profanity policy that defines certain words that may never be uttered at work. How would you define those vulgar words? Some may be offensive to one employee but not to another. Consider cultural differences, language differences, and context. If you have a “chronic cursor” in your team, it’s best to address the situation on a case-by-case basis. Observe their interactions with colleagues, solicit feedback on their communication style, and take action if concerns are raised. Usually, a private conversation with the employee explaining that others find their language offensive can nip the situation in the bud.

Profanity is a hot topic: some people love it, and others hate it.

And yet, it may have a place at work—but only in certain circumstances and with a few caveats. Archbright members can access sample policies referenced in this article in the mozzo Resource Library. For more information on membership, contact info@archbright.com

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