• What the #*@%! (Swearing in the Workplace)
  • January 17, 2006
  • Law Firm: McGlinchey Stafford, PLLC - New Orleans Office
  • According to results of an on-line survey conducted by a Boulder, Colorado based business and technology company, an increasing number of employees seem to be following the advice of Mark Twain. The report produced by WorldWIT, a community of professionals in 25 countries, showed that some 80 percent of the 40,000 respondents said that they have either grown accustomed to "vulgarities in the workplace" or else don't mind workplace swearing that is used sparingly.

    Nearly 70 percent of those polled said they believe swearing has no relation to age, although it could be more of a gender issue, a factor of stress, or a part of the workplace physical setting or environment. Respondents indicated that while profanity typically happens under stress, it "diminishes" the character of the person using it. For starters, it can send the message that the person is out of control. "A profane expression communicates a low threshold for managing difficult circumstances," according to one unidentified respondent. "It raises issues about the effectiveness of that person's style of communication." Another said "[i]t really all depends on how they said it and in what context, but I still think it's very unprofessional and classless."

    Another Illinois-based company, Cuss Control Academy, points out on its Web site that in addition to offending or making some people uncomfortable, profane language can do "damage" to relationships. "Cursing is sometimes humorous, but sometimes abusive. It can help vent anger or provoke it. It can relieve stress or cause it. It can be clever and flirtatious or sexist and intimidating." The site says that among its negative aspects, it is disrespectful, dumbed-down language that is "a tool for whiners and complainers," "turns discussions into arguments" and "can be a sign of hostility" that could eventually lead to violence.

    It can also lead to termination. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the termination of a union officer -- a sixteen year employee -- for using profanity to insult a supervisor, according to an HR News report. It's important to distinguish between profanity that is used generally to let off steam and profanity that is directed at a person," WorldWIT's CEO Liz Ryan said in a press release. "It's one thing to say '[t]his situation sucks', and another thing to say, "Joe Smith sucks in his job."

    She had suggestions for those who are offended by workplace cursing and wish to curb it. "The best way to make your own tolerance level known is to comment (gently) when you hear something that's just too harsh for your ears. You can say '[c]an I bother you to find a less colorful expression?' Ninety-five percent of people will get the hint," she said.

    She also had suggestions for employers on the subject: take the pulse of your workplace with a quick survey to learn employees' comfort level when it comes to profanity and adjust office rules accordingly. She said some people who feel "overwhelmed by very strong language" are often the sort of people who are hesitant to speak up because they fear that they won't be viewed as sufficiently hard-core and tough about their jobs.

    Formally encouraging a culture of civility is another tactic to temper workplace profanity, according to an HR Magazine article on "desk rage" written by Productivity Pro CEO Laura Stack. "People might think twice before spouting off if it's going to show up on their performance reviews" as an appraisal issue "and affect their raises or bonuses,"she wrote in "Employees Behaving Badly."

    Liz Ryan adds that, in an age of increasing diversity, companies should consider those who are averse to coarse language. "No one should have to work in an F-this, F-that environment if they're not comfortable."