Cussing InThe Workplace

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about profanity:

In our office there is a lot of swearing in casual conversation, and I think it is unprofessional. I’ve talked to the supervisor concerning the individuals using the words, but it continues. What kinds of liability can this cause a corporation and how do I get these employees to stop?

Signed, Don’t Like It

Dear Don’t Like It:

Have you suggested to your supervisor that she/he wash your co-worker’s mouths with soap? Or might you recommend your supervisor follow the cure of Paul Bunyan?
*It was so cold that winter that the men’s words froze and dropped to the ground as they were spoken. The efficient bookkeeper, Johnny Inkslinger, thought of boxing up the most explosive of all words and selling them for blasting powder.
*One good thing that came out of the cold spell was to cure all the men in camp of swearing. Whenever a man dropped a cuss-word, Paul had it picked up, labeled with the man’s name, and forced each man to listen to his baleful of cuss words when they thawed in the spring. Brimstone Bill was the worst offender. He was deaf for three weeks after being forced to listen to his thawing pile of cuss words. That cured him.

Most of us grew up learning that some words were not to be spoken; yet we heard them from other kids and adults. Apparently, you were raised like I was and consequently it troubles you to hear such words, and now you ask two questions:
· Can a company be liable if its employees swear?
· What can you do to stop swearing in your office?

We do not give legal advice or opinion, but to the best of my knowledge a corporation cannot be liable for swearing if that swearing is not targeted at a specific person or group in a discriminatory way. If your co-workers utter words of disgust when something goes wrong, such as a “God Damn it” or “shit”, that is acceptable if the company rules do not make those words out of bounds. Sexual terms such as “mother fucker” or “fuck you” are common in some workplaces. They are not considered “fighting words” or a threat to bodily harm unless accompanied with menacing demeanor targeting a certain individual.

A corporation, however, can be liable for sexual harassment or discrimination if such words have created a hostile environment if women in general are referred to as or called bitches, whores, hoes, cunts or gays are labeled fags. Some research about swearing in the workplace supports the argument that it fosters bonding and teamwork. The psychological explanation for this is that being part a group requires use of taboo language and that being able to take such language as being called a “dumb fuck” means one is part of the gang.

Some of those in superior positions take on the taboo language of those in lower positions to gain acceptance, just as some politicians try to show they are one with the common man/woman by bending an elbow with a large mug of beer as Hillary recently did. Yet a double standard still exits. Women, who swear in the workplace, are viewed as less professional than men who do. Most businesses frown on swearing in the presence of customers or suppliers, and I expect that is the case for your place of work.

Therefore, your second question is one you apparently think is needed: How to stop it? What does your policy handbook say? More importantly, what is the mission of your workplace and what kind of image is good for those of you who work together and for internal and external customers? In short, what is good for business? If you want your office to be perceived as professional rather than as a men’s locker room or bar where swearing is common, you can voice that opinion. You say you have complained to your supervisor about co-workers who swear and that it continues? How firmly did you state your discomfort? What case did you make?

A next step is for you to voice your discomfort to those who swear or to make swearing a topic for discussion at a staff meeting. To prepare for that you might wisely list the kind of words you have heard over a week and when, where, and how they were used. Did they contribute to releasing frustration and stress? Were they demeaning to sex or to your faith? What is the case that you can make both for your personal discomfort and for conveying a professional image for your office?A polite request can be ignored. A firm request expressing your genuine discomfort has a better chance of gaining some measure of compliance than complaining to your supervisor about co-workers who swear.

A case for conveying a professional image might have some influence if you could argue that swearing conveys low status, especially if you can show that it is not in keeping with the kind of image desired by your company. Is what you really want is a harmonious work-friendly climate in your office? What are you doing to help make that happen? Are you one who is enthusiastic? Sharing the workload? Making others jobs easier and more productive? Helping cut wasted supplies, time, and energy? Empathizing? Cheering? Beautifying your work area? Talking up rather than talking down? Could it be that if these are your major concerns that swearing would not matter? How do you think my signature line might apply to your workplace: Working together with hand, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS?

William Gorden