It Shouldn’t Take Congress to Get Employees to Stop Swearing in E-Mails

Should HR and management have to monitor employees for e-mail profanity? (Illustration by Dreamstime)

You know you have big workforce problems when you have to introduce screening software to make sure that your 30,000-plus employees don’t use profanity or inappropriate language in their e-mails.

So it goes at Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street giant that was embarrassed during Congressional hearings this spring when Thomas Montag, the former head of sales and training at Goldman, was “blasted by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. … over an internal e-mail … in which (Montag) described an investment the company sold to a client as “one shitty deal.”

I’ve included the wonderful video of this exchange here for your amusement and viewing pleasure, but it raises this question: why does it take getting embarrassed publicly, in front of a Congressional hearing and nationwide on C-Span, to finally make senior management enforce what seems like a sensible and pragmatic company policy?

Here’s the gist of it, from The Wall Street Journal:

A Goldman spokeswoman said: “Of course we have policies about the use of appropriate language and we are always looking for ways to ensure that they are enforced.”

The new edict — delivered verbally, of course — has left some employees wondering if the rule also applies to shorthand for expletives such as “WTF” or legitimate terms that sound similar to curses.

In the spirit of the times, there is no written directive specifying which curses now are officially cursed. But screening tools being used by the firm would detect common swear words and acronyms.”

And as the New York Daily News noted, “although there are no specific punishments for violators, repeat offenders will be ordered by their superiors to discuss their choice of words.”

Other companies have various ways to monitor foul language in online communications – and The New York Times DealBook blog relates one particularly invasive one at media company Bloomberg LP – but this makes me wonder: why does an organization need to go to such over-the-top methods to enforce civil and responsible behavior in its professional workforce?

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I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: you must ALWAYS be careful what you write in an e-mail and online, because the person you least want to see it probably will, as so many Facebook and MySpace users can attest.

One would think that you would not need to caution highly-paid Wall Street brokers and analysts – people who make a living dealing with wealthy, professional clients – that they need to refrain from using profanity and inappropriate language in company e-mail. Yes, you would think that but you would be wrong.

Here’s my question: how do you handle this if you are the HR Vice President at another Wall Street company that is a competitor of Goldman Sachs? Do you take a heavy-handed approach with expensive monitoring software, or, do you just send a note around reminding the staff to stay professional and learn from Goldman Sachs’ bad example? Or, so you do something else entirely?

Leave me a comment here or e-mail me at john@tlnt.com. I’m dying to get some pragmatic HR and management insight into this.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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4 Comments on “It Shouldn’t Take Congress to Get Employees to Stop Swearing in E-Mails

  1. My take: Who cares?

    Swearing in emails to clients – internal or external – is an issue. It diminishes customer service. But swearing in internal emails between team members. Why is that a “problem” HR has to solve?

    Isn't that just another example of HR being a hall monitor instead of focusing on what really matters: Creating a culture that doesn't result in a congressional hearing in the first place?

  2. Maybe the thinking is that using profanity in e-mails, even internal ones, makes it more likely that employees will use such language when dealing with customers, too. Plus, Goldman Sachs was dealing with a unique problem — having their internal communications discussed before a Congressional committee.

    But you raise a really good point: why isn't the focus on creating a culture that doesn't result in a Congressional hearing in the first place? Unfortunately, you hit on the very issue that helped lead Wall Street into the type of behavior that nearly torpedoed our economy — the “Masters of the Universe” thinking that Tom Wolfe wrote about in “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

    My guess is that HR doesn't play much of a role at all on Wall Street in helping create the proper type of culture, and it's probably why Wall Street firms have the ethical and cultural problems that were highlighted before Congress.

    Yes, a little dose of smart HR would probably help Wall Street get its out-of-control culture in check. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening in the near future. And that speaks volumes about why Wall Street is in the fix it's in.

  3. John,

    Thanks for the response. I'm not sure I buy the slippery-slope argument that if you swear in internal communication, you're more likely to do so externally, too. Everyone behaves differently in different situations.

    Do you think the Wall Street culture emerged in the absence of HR, or in the presence of an HR function that was focused on the wrong things?

    Thanks again (love what you're doing as editor of TLNT)!

    Chris

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Chris! Great to have you commenting here.

    My guess (and it is purely informed speculation) is that the Wall Street culture emerged in the absence of a strong HR function. My experience is that HR can get run over in a culture that is focused so sharply and singularly on generating big dollars.

    Wall Street would do well to embrace a stronger HR culture where ethical conduct plays a larger role. I wish that would happen, but it probably won't. Wall Street already seems to be getting back to its typical behavior now that the bailout frenzy is fading. So it goes.

    Still, I think this topic would make for a great Harvard Business Review-style case study on the role of HR in Wall Street's ethically-deprived culture. I, for one, would love to know what HR's involvement was throughout the whole debacle. The results might help to make a great case for a stronger HR culture on Wall Street.

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