I remember the first time I heard one of my bosses use profanity. I thought, “Wow, people DO curse at work—I’m all grown up now!” Personally, I didn’t curse at work until I got to my mid-twenties, and even then I was smart enough to know that you can’t do it around everyone.

That was then, and this is now; swearing at work is becoming more and more acceptable. Even the President of the United States has used profanity when talking to Matt Lauer about the BP oil spill, saying, and I quote: “So I know whose ass to kick.” Oh don’t worry, he’s not the first POTUS to drop some bad words, check this out: “A Brief History of Presidential Profanity.”

Some people believe profanity can be used to energize and ignite their teams. Others feel that it helps to emphasize the importance or severity of a situation. And yet others feel that swearing can humanize them to their staff and customers. Of course, there are leaders who feel you should be able to articulate your thoughts, show emotion, pump up your employees, and motivate the workforce without swearing. Guess what? Both sides can be right.

Pros and Cons

There are literally thousands of articles, books, and studies on the positive and negative effects of profanity in the workplace. Just as with most discussions, there are experts who weigh in on both sides, some agreeing and others disagreeing.  And that being said, I want to take a bit of a different approach to the whole “Swearing in the Workplace” conversation.

Remember when I mentioned that I started swearing at work in my mid-twenties? Well, I also stopped soon after. I was a corporate trainer, and one day my boss called me into her office and here’s how the conversation went.

Boss: “I want you to know I have received a complaint about you from someone in your class. She says you curse too much.”

Me: “What? I rarely curse and when I do it’s for comedic effect!”

Boss: “Calm down. I know. Unbeknownst to you, for the past two weeks, I have been listening outside your training room at various times of the day. I only heard you curse once or twice and it was with humor. I just thought you should know and maybe be even more careful.”

I left that meeting thinking to myself, “Wow, I hear supervisors, managers, directors, and even other trainers curse all the time, yet this happens to me.” So I stopped swearing . . . at work. Some people get away with it, some don’t.

Know Your Audience

I’m not advising you to swear and I’m not advising you not swear at work, but here are a few things to consider. The first thing is this: who is your audience and what’s your intended effect? Remember, today we have the most diverse workplaces ever, with a lot of different cultures, sexes, races, ages, and religions. You may say something intending to lighten the mood and end up offending your employees. Know your company and your identity. How do you want to be perceived?

Rules, guidelines, and regulations for acceptable interoffice communications should be established to ensure that everyone is being respected. What’s acceptable is set by your management team. Most employees follow the tone of their lead or boss, so if they hear you swear, they will think it’s okay to swear.

The NLRB Weighs In

Speaking of rules, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recently made some mind-blowing decisions regarding swearing.

First, in the case of two Hooters workers who got in a verbal altercation at a bikini contest, the NLRB sited that the complainant was upset regarding the management of the bikini contest, therefore her vulgar outburst was a protected concerted activity (the right employees have to speak out in order to improve workplace conditions).

Second, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sent a case back to the NLRB stating that an employer, Plaza Auto Center, was in violation when they fired an employee who cursed the boss out, calling him a “f—king crook and a mother—ker” during a pay dispute.  Since it didn’t become physically violent, the NLRB decided that the complainant should have been protected and that Plaza Auto Center owed him back pay from 2008.

In another instance, a Starbucks employee who got into a verbal shouting match with the manager, complete with swearing and threats, was ultimately deemed protected by the National Labor Relations Act. If you want to read more about these cases, here is a great article on Holland & Knight: “Recent NLRB Decisions Condone Workplace Profanity And Insubordination.”

I shared that article with two HR Managers and one Director of HR and asked them how they felt about the NRLB’s rulings, and each one said basically, “I don’t care what they say; if an employee cursed me out, he would be fired. If he got into a verbal altercation in front of my customers, he’d be fired, and I would just have to fight the case in court.”

Less is More

My professional opinion is that people would prefer to work in a place where everyone minds their manners. No one wants to work in an office where people are swearing at each other—it just seems unprofessional. Sure, sometimes the boss may use strong language to motivate the team, stress the severity of a situation, or just to break the tension—but in those instances, the profanity should be strategic and used sparingly. After all, this is not “The Wolf of Wall-Street” (a movie that uses the f-bomb over 500 times) and you were not raised by . . . well . . . wolves.

Chris Fields

Chris Fields is an HR professional and expert resume writer with more than 13 years of experience as a former practitioner and current HR consultant. He is the curator of two websites: CostofWork.com and ResumeCrusade.com , and contributes HR-focused content to many others, including PerformanceICreate.com and SmartRecruiters.com . He has been listed by the Huffington Post as one of the “Top 100 Most Social Human Resources Experts to Follow on Twitter”, one of the “Top 40 under 40” by the HR Blogger Network, one of the “25 Must-Read HR Blogs in 2013”, and also featured on Oprah.com. He is very active with the Society of Human Resource Management, working closely with conference directors, communication chairs, and social media teams from Illinois, Oklahoma, and Tennessee to develop social strategies to engage attendees and enhance their conference experience. Chris earned his master’s degree in Labor and Human Resources from Ohio State University. In 2005, he moved back to his hometown of Memphis, TN, where he has developed a reputation for helping his clients create HR strategies, and individuals master the tough economic challenges of the South.

4 Comments

  • Avatar Sarah Howard says:

    What an interesting subject to debate. The organizational culture is crucial in this issue. I have worked in a company where everybody was looking strangely at me because I wasn’t swearing. Every employee used “colorful language”, and by not speaking like them, it meant that I wasn’t part of the group. Unfortunately, I couldn’t adapt there, and I had to quit.

  • Avatar Tim Hudson says:

    I don’t blame those who are swearing in the workplace, but I believe that using curse words can often prevent her or him from truly communicating with the others. I appreciate people who, instead of cursing, are focused more on communicating their message. Even if I’m angry or upset, I prefer to take time to calm down and develop a professional communication strategy.

  • Avatar Abby D. says:

    Profanity is inappropriate under any circumstances, and it’s a hard habit to beak. It is quite easy to lose respect, authority, and morale by swearing, and it’s very hard to get all these things back. From my point of view, doing this is the result of poor vocabulary, low educational level, and little self-control.

  • Avatar Hailay Anderson says:

    Great article! I smiled when I read about what happened to you because it also happened to me. That was the moment when I realized that it doesn’t matter who my audience is, I should always keep the discussion professional. Not everyone appreciates this kind of language. If no one in your department comments on your use of swearing, it doesn’t mean that nobody noticed it. In an instant, it could be reported to human resources or a manager for an official warning.

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