How to Talk to an Employee about Using Profanity?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors, from a supervisor,
about how to discuss an employee’s use of profanity.

I need to know some questions to ask an employee about using profanity, in a meeting discussing her performance.

It’s stressful to be facing a counseling session with an employee, when you know you will be critiquing his or her behavior or performance. Often managers lose sleep and feel worried, much more than the employee does! Your brief question doesn’t explain the circumstances leading up to this meeting—and those are important for you to consider as you decide how to approach it.

*Are you trying to find out if she has, in fact, used profanity? If so, just ask her and ask her to explain t he circumstances in which she did it. The rest of the thoughts below, can be applied after that.

*Has she used profanity on several occasions, but you or other have not said anything at this point, hoping she would improve? Have you or someone tried to hint to her or joke with her about it, hoping she would improve? If so, the conversation may come as a big surprise to her and you will probably find it useful to talk about why you have not said anything before now. Keep it very brief.

*Performance usually relates to her ability to her assigned work effectively. Behavior usually is what describes communication problems, anger, rudeness, emotional outbursts, inappropriate actions for the circumstances, etc. Is her work performance acceptable, but her behavior is not? Or, are both her performance and behavior a problem? If both are a problem, your discussion will probably be more in the form of putting the employee on a formal performance and behavior improvement plan, warning her that failure to improve could result in the loss of her job.

If you have never told her before that her performance and behavior are considered unacceptable, you may not be authorized to do more than give an informal warning now, but after you put the emphasis on improvement you can include a reference to what could happen if she doesn’t improve.

*Did she use profanity because of an ongoing conflict with someone or anger about a situation? Or, was the profanity part of normal conversation or joking conversation and not said in anger? If she used profanity because of anger over a conflict or problem situation, you will need to find out more about that and decide if you need to intervene or to help correct the underlying problem. If it was just crude or salty language, spread throughout her conversation, simply telling her to not use such language in the future, may be all you need to say.

*Did you hear it or were you told about it? If you heard it, you don’t need to refer to complaints from others. If you didn’t, you can say that you were told about it. She will probably want to know who told you, but hopefully there are enough people in the office that you can say many people were aware of it and made you aware of it too.

*Do other people use profanity on occasion or is she the only one? If others do, be prepared for her to ask why she is the only one being talked to about it. A good way to deal with that is to say that when you have heard it, you have talked to the person involved, just as you are talking to her, and as far as you know, it hasn’t happen again. But, if in the future she wants to tell you about such an incident, she can do so. If she tells you the name right then and there, you can say, “That’s good to know. I’ll be on the alert about it. Now, let’s move on to this situation with you.”

I always like the One Minute Manager concept, adapted somewhat. That concept, developed by Ken Blanchard back in the 1980’s or so, says to keep opening statements brief and let the employee talk—which puts more pressure on them, lessens the pressure on the manager and also encourages more open communication. You don’t have to memorize a speech or practice what you’ll say then what she’ll say and so on. While you’re giving the memorized speech, the employee is sitting there waiting and wondering when you’re going to stop so they can talk.

So, rather than doing that, start by quietly and simply saying something like, “Maria, yesterday (or whatever the most recent day was), you used profanity that could be heard by several people. Those kind of words aren’t acceptable in our office. Tell me about what happened and exactly what you said. Then, let’s talk about how to keep this from ever happening again.”

That brief statement doesn’t require memorizing a long opening statement or even worrying about how to approach it. It’s just a brief statement of what happened and why you are talking to her about it.

If you intend to issue some sort of verbal or written warning, you can introduce that idea after the first part of the discussion. However, I would imagine you want, as a final outcome, that the employee keeps working there, does good work and stops using profanity. You may need to document your interview and she may need to sign that she has been warned. But that doesn’t need to be mentioned in your opening statement. Keep it brief and get to her response right away.   

After you’ve given the employee the invitation to tell you about what happened and to tell you what she said and why she said it, listen. Sincerely listen and don’t interrupt, even if something seems incorrect or absurd to you. When she’s done, you don’t have to agree with her or really even spend much time talking about what led to the profanity, just move on to your next statement: “OK. I see. Thank you for telling me what happened, from your perspective. But, it’s important for you to know that using profanity, no matter what the circumstance, isn’t the correct way to communicate and it’s not acceptable here. If it happens again, I’ll have to take more formal action about it and I don’t want us to be involved with that. What will you do the next time you’re in a similar situation, to make sure you don’t use any profanity again?”

In response to a question like that, almost no employees will say they intend to use profanity again. They know they can’t say that. So, at that point you may get a good statement about what she will do in the future (“Bite my tongue rather than cuss” “Walk away and come to you”, Keep it to myself”, “Remind myself that I will get in trouble” “Not joke like that.” etc.)

I have had managers tell me, after I’ve discussed the One Minute Manager concept, “Yes, but the way you describe it, she’ll be out of my office in under five minutes and I don’t think it will get her attention.”

What they’re really saying is that they think a counseling, coaching or corrective session has to last a long time and involve a big discussion. It doesn’t need to be that way. She is using profanity. You don’t want her to do it. You tell her so and get a commitment that she won’t do it again. That is the ideal way to move through a corrective conversation.

If you were the one being corrected, wouldn’t you prefer to hear the complaint, have a chance to talk about it, be told not to do it again, and move on? Of course you would. But if you intend to change, that is all that is needed. Talking at length and saying the same thing over and over isn’t needed. (If you don’t intend to change, having your boss say more won’t make a difference.) 

But, let’s say you want to do more than a quick in and out of your office, you want to really impress her with the fact that she has acted in the wrong way and you want to make her feel a bit more sanctioned for it, even though you’re not going to issue a formal reprimand or other sanction. In that case, you could once again put the pressure on her rather than taking it on yourself.

Ask some questions that require her to be more introspective and to take more personal responsibility for the situation: “What did you want to accomplish when you used those words?” “What kind of reaction were you expecting?” “Did it surprise you that Lee didn’t react well to your angry words?” “How did you feel after that conversation was over?” “Did you know we have a rule (or policy) that says we treat each other with respect?” (Or whatever the rule is that you’ll be referring to.) “Did you think about the fact that some people might be embarrassed or offended by your language?” ““Do you think this is a case of a habit or did you use those words purposely to make a point?” “Think about some words you can say to substitute for the obscene or crude words and use those instead.”

Referring to the habitual nature of profanity for most people, you could remind her that rarely is it such a habit that the person uses profanity to everyone on every occasion. Then, say that you’re confident she will be able to be expressive, funny, frustrated or whatever, without using salty language or making offensive remarks.

You may want to suggest that she research, online, some articles on how to break the profanity habit. Have her do the work, rather than you.

It is often challenging for managers to end these conversations, just as it is for them to start the conversations. When you have a commitment from the employee, don’t keep the conversation going much longer, just get her back to work. Stand up, while talking to her and move toward the door. She’ll get up too. Say something like, “I’m glad we were able to talk about this and get a good understanding about it. If something comes to your mind that you’d like to talk about further, let me know.”

If she appears angry or frustrated over being corrected, a good way to deal with it is to be open and honest, rather than to pretend you don’t notice. “I can tell you’re a bit angry about me discussing this with you. I’m confident when you think about it, you’ll realize why I did and that will help you keep moving forward.”

If she responds to that in a negative way, just say about the same thing again. If she’s still negative, you  may need to take her back to your desk or the conference table, sit her down and talk to her about her responsibility for correcting mistakes that are brought to her attention. If that still doesn’t accept your authority about the matter, you may need to stop the meeting and say you want to discuss the matter with your manager or with Human Resources or some other group in the organization.

I have always found it helpful to be honest with employees. For example, I don’t mind saying I need to talk to someone else about it, since the employee is not responding well to my efforts to coach them. Often that has concerned them enough that they quickly have said they will take my comments to heart and improve.

In my supervisory and managerial years, I have conducted many, many corrective counseling, coaching or reprimanding meetings with employees of all tenures and attitudes, and about behavior, performance or both. Some of the employees were very belligerent and angry, some were accepting, some were apologetic. I was least successful when I talked too much and most successful when I got to the point, asked them for their viewpoint, discussed their concerns if it was necessary, stated what they must do or not do in the future and asked them how they intended to make sure that happened, then thanked them for their positive efforts.

I was least successful when I didn’t tell the truth about some aspect of the situation and most successful when I was honest about how what I knew, how I felt, and what I was going to do. I was least successful when I sat at my desk or the conference table and the employee walked out. I was most successful when I walked with them and expressed confidence that things were going to be OK. I very often asked about something they were working on, so we could briefly discuss it. I quite often said something like, “We’ve gotten this worked out now, so don’t let it weigh on your mind, just move on with your work. I’ll be in touch later in the day.”

That’s one reason I like to have these conversations early in the day. It gives you all day to rebuild and strengthen the relationship. If you have it in the afternoon or before going-home time, the employee will go home and feel badly all night. So, try to talk about it early. If you must wait until mid to late afternoon, close with something like, “You’ll be going home before long. I want you to let your mind rest about this and leave it here at work, not take it home. Tomorrow we’ll get back to work together and move forward from there.”

If you are able to have the discussion earlier, at some point in the next couple of hours, go by the employee’s work area, smile and say hello. Or, thank them for something. Or buy them something from a vending machine. After your meeting with your employee, she will feel awkward or angry or embarrassed or hurt, so your goal is to help her feel that she is still on the team–and also for others to see it. My feeling is that if someone is still going to be working there, no matter how I might feel about them personally, it’s in the best interests of everyone for them to feel part of things and for other employees to feel that way too.

There is a lot of talk about leadership nowadays, but not much talk about necessary supervision and oversight. You are responsible for what happens in your workplace. Your job as a supervisor is to work with and through others to achieve the goals and mission of your organization and to get the work done in the most effective way possible. When you do that, you set a good example, you keep people focused on the work and you make the workplace better for everyone. That is practical leadership put into action.

I hope this has been helpful to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how this interview works out. Best wishes!

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.