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Swearing at Work: Not a "Bleeping" Good Idea

Updated on April 2, 2013
ChrisMcDade8 profile image

Christine McDade is a Human Resources professional (PHR & SHRM-CP) with over 18 years in the public sector.

Christine McDade is an experienced human resources manager.

Mom always told you that she'd wash your mouth out with soap.  Swearing at work can lead to other problems for employees and their employer.
Mom always told you that she'd wash your mouth out with soap. Swearing at work can lead to other problems for employees and their employer. | Source

As a Human Resources professional who has worked for over fifteen years in the Human Resources field, I have witnessed a lot of drama in the workplace. Physical attacks and verbal arguments brought out between employees because of heightened emotions are not unusual when dealing with unhappy co workers. Unfortunately, many of the end results were an employee being disciplined or losing their job. Some of those heated exchanges with severe repercussions were due to some unpleasant verbal exchanges with swearing as a part of the dialogue. When foul and abusive language is accepted as a workplace norm, there are eventually going to be some serious problems for employees that management will have to address.

What's the Big Deal?

Employees come to work to be paid for the work they do for an employer. When they come to work, there are some basic assumptions that they make about the work environment. They are:

  1. Safety - Employees assume that they are going to be working under safe conditions to perform the job they do. In other words, the employer is to provide the necessary safety equipment, the resources to do the job safely, and the training necessary to understand safety issues such as proper use of chemicals, supplies, and machinery. Supervisors are responsible for monitoring any hazards or potential issues that could be present for employees.
  2. Proper Supervision - Employees assume that there will be adequate supervision to provide direction for those situations that are beyond their decision-making ability. Having access or direct involvement from a supervisor does not mean the working employees want to be micro-managed. Rather, employees understand there are decisions that must be made that are above their scope of work. Supervisors must be sure to have proper leadership accessible to employees who need assistance during their workday. Employees understand that they make things happen in the workplace, but still need a structure and chain of command in which to operate.
  3. Workplace Free of Harassment and Discrimination - The primary assumption, which goes along with having a safe and structured workplace, is to have one that is free of harassment and discrimination that results when policies prohibiting unwelcome behavior are lax or not consistently enforced. This unchecked behavior can result in bigger issues such as grievances, EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) Charges and/or lawsuits.

Employers are fairly consistent about the first two assumptions, but may not place enough importance on maintaining a workplace free of harassment and discrimination. Failure to recognize the importance may bring some unnecessary and costly grief to both the employees and the employer. Allowing employees to freely swear and use verbal attacks against one another can lead to significant problems in the workplace.

When employees engaged in cursing in the workplace, Human Resources is often consulted for advice on how to address the issue.
When employees engaged in cursing in the workplace, Human Resources is often consulted for advice on how to address the issue. | Source

Address Situations that Arise Accordingly

One way to create an atmosphere free of swearing or cursing is to include verbiage in a policy for the employee handbook that addresses foul language in the workplace. While an occasional slip up should not necessarily mean an employee is going to receive a harsh disciplinary action, the supervisor should address each situation accordingly. If the use of foul language is done in front of some visiting children from the local elementary school, the supervisor should speak to that employee immediately and remind him/her that they represent the organization to the community. If the language is directed toward a particular employee and is derogatory toward the person, there is also a problem for a supervisor to address. If the employee suddenly drops a glass that shatters on the factory floor, an exclamation of a curse word is not the end of the world and can be handled accordingly by the supervisor.

When the use of offensive language is directed toward a specific employee due to anger with the person, the supervisor will want to immediately counsel the employee to demonstrate the organization's philosophy on such language. Cursing at someone during a workplace dispute is likely to lead to other discriminatory comments such as those that refer to a person's gender, religion, race and all other protections as listed by federal and state law. Supervisors must act swiftly to respond with a speedy yet thorough investigation that leads to a conclusion so that employees understand such language is unacceptable. Employers do not want to receive an allegation of a hostile work environment due to the repeated use of offensive and abusive cursing in the workplace.

Unprofessional Behavior

The bottom line for swearing at work is that such workplace behavior is not professional and, therefore, contrary to the organization's best interest. Derogatory names and offensive superlatives are bound to offend either a co worker or a customer who happens to witness it. Since employees should be representing the employer to the best of their abilities while they are at the work site or out in the field, it is important for policies to address that swearing and foul language is unacceptable. Employers who fail to recognize the significance of allowing swearing to go unchecked and rampant in the workplace are very likely to experience some significant employee relations issues in the future.


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    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      5 years ago

      Good hub and right on the money. I was always surprised how many people swore at work and did not think it was inappropriate. Good tips as always!

    • jpcmc profile image

      JP Carlos 

      5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Immediate respone is important. We don't want an isolted case to turn into the corporate culture.


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