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Swearing in the Workplace

For any of you out there in reader-land who happen to know me (Hi Mum and Dad!), you’ll know that I am no stranger to the F-bomb. True, it’s coarse, vulgar and can be quite offensive to some, but it’s so versatile: it can be an adjective, a noun and a verb! What about in the workplace, though? How do you handle a colleague who swears a lot, and unnecessarily? As an employer, how do you deal with coarse language in your business? What do you think when you hear your staff drop the F-bomb? Or do you drop it yourself, and perhaps your staff recoil in disgust. Can we use bad language while at work?

It’s a tough question and there’s no one answer that will suit every business, office space, organisation or industry. In this post-modern era, most workplaces have become more tolerant of four-letter words, but I still think the short answer is no (confession: I am grappling with hypocrisy here, as there have been more than a few instances where I have been guilty of using it at work). My awkwardness aside, generally speaking, the F-bomb and its other friends shouldn’t be uttered in the workplace. At best, I think you need to pick your audience.

Certain industries and workplaces need to have stronger policies on swearing than others. For example, those working on a construction site may not be penalised for using some swear words, whereas somebody working as a medical receptionist should not be dropping the F-bomb at all. Again, to continue with the stereotype, a mechanic’s workshop would most likely be tolerant of swearing, but a high-end jewellery store? Um, no.

Also important to note is to whom, or what, the F-bomb—or other bad language—is being directed. If you’re struggling with your fifty-seventh paper jam in the photocopier in a twenty minute period, then yes, by all means, swear at the mother-f&$ker. An inanimate object can’t be offended. But if you’re talking to or about a colleague, keep the F-bomb, as well as other derogatory and unprofessional talk, out of the conversation. That’s a short stroll down the laneway of bullying.

Whatever your business is, it’s a good idea to have a policy (have a read of my 'Old And Worn Out Policies & Procedures blog) that covers swearing in the workplace, and if any use of bad language will constitute a dismissal (this is usually found within a Code of Conduct Policy). Consider these questions:

  • Has the conduct caused us reputational or financial damage?

  • Do we accept the conduct as part of our workplace culture?

  • If the conduct is not appropriate, how have we dealt with it in the past?

  • Do the individual’s actions mean they have acted insubordinately toward senior employees?1

Once you consider these, then decide what is appropriate for your business, make sure you set the tone as well, for if you, as the employer are using language that the policy states against, then that is akin to condoning its use by other staff.

Worth noting too, is that in our high-tech, globalised world, many industries, while growing exponentially, are also becoming smaller. You think by calling Bob from Accounts a dickweed to your mates in the office kitchen while heating up last night’s leftovers that it will end there? Not so much. Social media means that we’re connected (this is Mark Zuckerberg’s goal with Facebook, is it not?), and one of your mates can easily relay this conversation via Twitter, whereby someone else shares it on their Facebook page, and before you know it, you’ve developed a reputation as a foul-mouthed bully who has sullied your own name, and possibly that of the business too.

On a more personal, thoughtful note, it’s probably a good thing to remember that such vernacular can be alienating. There are some who visibly cringe when the F-bomb is spoken, especially if it’s used only to plump out the length of a sentence. While at work one day, I remember chatting away with a few colleagues after one had had a difficult person on a telephone call. This colleague was using the F-bomb at least three times per sentence to describe the gist of the caller’s conversation. Another staff member, who’d clearly been uncomfortable listening, politely asked her to refrain from using it quite so much.

The use of the F-bomb can also highlight a disarming lack of intelligence and minimal grasp of the English language. Words are fascinating, and there are so many options out there to describe your horror, or anger, or dissatisfaction, or happiness without resorting to wharfie-speak. But above all, in the workplace, it can show a lack of professionalism, especially if you’re working in a white collar or corporate office situation.

I noted earlier that swearing in the workplace was difficult and that there isn’t one particular option that suits all employers and their businesses. There are, however, ample witty memes on the internet to assist you, whether you’re the employer or the employee, to integrate more considerate ways of responding to requests. Here are just a few amusing suggestions that I discovered:

Try Saying: Perhaps I can work late

Instead Of: And when the f*&$ do you expect me to do this?

Try Saying: I wasn't involved in the project.

Instead Of: Not my f&$ing problem.

Try Saying: It will be tight, but I'll try to schedule it in

Instead Of: Why the f!@# didn't you tell me that yesterday?

Try Saying: He's not familiar with the issues

Instead Of: He's got his head up his f%!@king arse.

Try them, and see how it works!


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