Swearing in the Workplace


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Swearing in the workplace is a common issue that most HR managers will have to deal with at some point. But when does occasional use of bad language become a big problem, and what should you do about it?

Article 5 Minutes
Swearing in the Workplace

Many things fall under the remit of the HR manager, including the responsibility of developing and enforcing workforce policies and procedures to ensure employees are adhering to certain standards in the workplace.

One challenge you're likely to encounter in this area is dealing with swearing in the workplace. It's down to the HR department to make important decisions about this issue.

Is the occasional use of bad language permissible if co-workers are sharing a good-natured joke or simply need to blow off some steam? How do you know when swearing is becoming a serious problem in the workplace, and what should you do about it?

What is considered profanity?

Most people in your workforce will be aware of obvious examples of profanity that would be unacceptable in the workplace, especially in highly professional environments or when talking to customers.

However, it's important to be very clear about what’s considered inappropriate language, as some people might be offended by particular words or phrases that others would be entirely unfazed by.

Language with religious connotations is a good example. While some employees might use the word 'God' in a casual way, without giving much thought to its broader significance, people with strong religious beliefs might be offended or at least surprised by this, and will expect HR to do something about it.

The potential consequences of this were highlighted in a recent court case in Portland, Oregon, brought forward by an employee with Christian beliefs who told her co-workers she found some of the language they used offensive. The jury found the employer liable for subjecting her to a hostile work environment.

It's also important to think about the context and manner in which language is used. A mild swear word is less likely to cause offense if it's aimed at an inanimate object, such as a malfunctioning printer, than if it's used in an aggressive way towards a fellow worker.

Is swearing really unprofessional at work?

The answer to this question is largely dependent on context. If your sales team are going into a big meeting with a potential client, for example, and one of the first words out of someone's mouth is a profanity, this would clearly be considered unprofessional. In fact, it could be so poorly received that you lose the client's business, meaning this particular instance of bad language has caused material harm to the company.

In other scenarios, such as two close colleagues taking a break from a particularly demanding project, swearing could be seen as a natural consequence of the pressures of work. It could even be argued that occasional profanity is useful because it helps people destress and builds camaraderie.

According to Michael Adams, professor of English language and literature at Indiana University and author of 'In Praise Of Profanity', swearing is part of what makes us human.

"The context, the type of swearing and the audience are all important factors in determining whether swearing in the workplace is inappropriate. An important consideration which must be made in the context of considering swearing at work is whether there are any workplace policies that regulate such language." - Alecia Thompson, solicitor at PCC Lawyers


Should managers care if employees swear on social media?

Social media provides a lot of opportunities for businesses, but it can also create unique challenges. Having the content and comments your employees post visible to a vast global audience, including current and prospective customers, could reflect negatively on your business.

This is a difficult area for employers to navigate. You might be concerned about the way employees present themselves and communicate on social media, but you also need to be cautious of impinging on people's freedoms and choices outside of work.

Furthermore, disqualifying job candidates or disciplining employees based on their social media activity could set you on a path that leads to long-term recruitment and retention difficulties.

However, there are instances where you might feel justified in taking action against staff who have used bad language on social media. An individual who has sent a rude or inappropriate tweet to a manager or colleague should know that sort of behavior is unacceptable and must face appropriate repercussions.

For most modern businesses, it's advisable to create a specific social media policy. This allows you to clearly state how you expect your employees to conduct themselves online, and what sort of activity will lead to a disciplinary response, including possible termination.

Should you discipline employees for swearing?

Disciplinary action might be a necessity if it becomes clear that the language used by your employees is starting to create serious problems for the workforce and the business as a whole.

If someone is found to have directed foul language at a colleague in a way that made the other person feel bullied or threatened, for example, there’s clear justification for the offender to be disciplined.

In extreme cases - if the language used has racist or sexist overtones, for example - the HR department will need to consider the option of termination. Many businesses have zero-tolerance policies on harassment, discrimination and bullying, which could lead to instant dismissal.

Policy should be the foundation stone upon which all your efforts to manage swearing in the workplace are based. Your policy - whether it's a blanket 'no swearing' rule or something more nuanced - should be made absolutely clear and regularly conveyed to employees at all levels, through onboarding and ongoing training.

Putting in the work to design and communicate fair, sensible policies on this topic to your employees helps everyone know where they stand. This minimizes the risk of any unpleasant disciplinary disputes and contributes to a happy, productive workforce.

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