Swearing in the Workplace – Acceptable or Not?

Those of us who’ve been in the workforce for 20 years or more will remember a time when it was quite acceptable for the boss to let loose with a tirade of expletives if he was displeased with someone. I say ‘he’ because there weren’t many ‘she’s’ in management positions back then.

But times have thankfully changed, and workers are now expecting higher standards of behaviour from their superiors and each other, and rightfully so.

It’s reasonable that people may occasionally swear in the workplace out of frustration or after accidental injury and there is usually no intention to harm or offend anyone. Swearing, is sometimes a natural human response to an adverse circumstance and most of us have enough emotional intelligence to know when its ok to drop the F-bomb and when it isn’t.

The question is, how much swearing is acceptable and to what level? The short answer is, every workplace is different. Acceptance of swearing in the workplace is dependent upon the setting, the behaviour of the employer and the accepted culture among employees. For instance, in a face-to-face customer orientated business or at a school, swearing at work would, of course, be frowned upon, especially while customers or impressionable children are present. But on a construction site or in a commercial kitchen, swearing is not only commonplace, it’s an accepted mode of self-expression.

Modern businesses are generally more lenient in the use of language in workplaces as cursing has become much more common and accepted in today’s society.

When is Swearing Not Okay?

Swearing or cursing becomes unacceptable when it is directed at someone. In certain circumstances, this can even be considered workplace bullying or harassment  and can lead to dismissal in extreme circumstances.

You may be frustrated with your new co-worker after they made a mistake that has heavily affected your work, but launching a tirade of offensive language at them, is never appropriate under any circumstance. Perhaps you want to poke fun at a colleague by giving them an expletive-laden nickname. This directed type of swearing can feel highly threatening when you are on the receiving end and can be very distressing, not only for the person at which the swearing is directed, but anyone within earshot.

Workplaces in which workers are regularly subjected to verbal abuse, even in fun, can be detrimental from a workplace health and safety perspective, causing workers to feel constantly stressed and on edge, waiting for the next ‘blow up’ or hurtful comment.

The stress hormone cortisol, which floods the body during that fight-or-flight response, helps prepare us to be nimble and aware in response to perceived threats; over time, though, repeated exposure to too much cortisol can build up to a checklist of nasty effects: trouble sleeping, anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure and heart disease.

Studies are now showing that the old ‘sticks and stones’ adage is not true. Names can and do hurt us and sometimes in profound physical ways.

How do I know if swearing is okay in my workplace?

This question is very difficult to answer definitively. There are no set rules around when it’s ok to swear and when it isn’t. For a new employee beginning a new job, here are some tips:

  • Never assume anything simply by the appearance of the workplace or the other employers.
  • You can generally find out a lot about workplace expectations through general conversation with other staff members – how do they speak to you? What type of language are they comfortable using?
  • Check your workplace conduct policies. Some workplaces will set out guidelines around acceptable communication.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask somebody.
  • Don’t worry too much if a swear word accidentally rolls off your tongue – remember it is quite common in today’s society and if it is unacceptable in your workplace, someone will correct you.

As an employer, how do I set appropriate standards of communication?

As an employer, it can be difficult to find the balance between what you should allow and what you shouldn’t. In a workplace with a majority of adult employees, it isn’t easy to control how they speak. However, if the way your employees are speaking, is affecting your customer base or each other, changes need to be made. Here are some tips on how to encourage a suitable language culture.

  • Set the example. Workplace culture filters downward, meaning the way you and your managers speak, will become the accepted norm among your employees. If you have a tendency to fly off the handle, think seriously about how that behaviour is impacting your workplace.
  • Stick to your morals – don’t allow your employees to act in ways you find inappropriate while they are representing your company.
  • Make your expectations around workplace language known – new employees should be advised of your expectations regarding language and these expectations should be written into your conduct policies.
  • Reward positive behaviour and provide warnings for unacceptable behaviour.
  • Monitor and keep a record of warnings, rewards and individual employee actions to avoid issues accumulating.
  • If some employees are having trouble curbing their language, start a ‘swear jar’ or think of another fun way that you and other employees can gently remind that person to think about the language they are using.

Deal swiftly and decisively with any reports of verbal abuse. There is NEVER an acceptable excuse for this in the workplace.