Swearing in the Office: It’s the Workplace’s Four-Letter Word Dilemma

© giz - Fotolia.com
© giz - Fotolia.com

Workplace taboos have changed dramatically over the years.

In the Mad Men era, the idea of working from home was laughable. And forget gender equity or open office plans. You were toast if you showed up a few minutes late or tried to speak openly in a meeting, but drinking and smoking while working were pervasive.

Society has changed and so, of course, has work.

Many offices now offer flexible work arrangements — that is, unless you’re Yahoo. We champion the idea of open communications, and encourage workers to be themselves. We want them to take their unique strengths and put them to work, not all try to be the same cookie-cutter, 9–5 worker.

But as with any radical change, this new work environment has encountered its fair share of issues. The line between what’s work-appropriate and what’s not has become increasingly blurry, and this affects a wide range of matters, from the most trivial to the most consequential.

One issue that most managers should keep in mind is quite basic: swearing in the office. As with all great debates, there are two sides to this coin.

1. Finding your own voice

We all want a productive workforce. Employees who put in the elbow grease are what fuel a company’s success.

But pushing your workers towards ever-greater productivity can start to have a serious impact on employee happiness and engagement. We all know that employees don’t work hard just for the financial rewards. The hardest workers also tend to be the happiest, and one way to help your employees become happier is to create an open working environment.

When employees feel comfortable where they work, they work smarter, harder, and faster. Part of that comfort level is being who they are, and for many people, that’s having a salty mouth.

Being able to mutter an obscenity when a sale falls through, or pepper sentences with phrases that would make your grandmother blush, are easy ways to let off steam and allow employees to feel like themselves. With great comfort comes great work.

2. Be you — but maybe a little less so

Comfort is essential, and that’s why swearing in the office isn’t always such a good idea.

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Good working environments are also diverse; they bring in people from all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and interests. What’s perfectly reasonable language to one person can leave another running for the hills.

It’s HR 101 that no one should feel threatened in her work environment, and bad language makes plenty of people feel uneasy. You never want to be in a position where you’re losing valuable team-members over a couple of “harmless” curses.

Ultimately, it’s YOUR culture

So the central question is this: to swear or not to swear?

The bottom line on this one is that there’s no universal answer (sorry!). It’s all about your company’s culture.

If you’re a traditional white-collared firm, you can stick to the “gosh-darn-its.” If you’re in a much more laidback environment, it’s okay to let a few F-bombs fly now and again. It’s all about the dynamics of the people actually working for and with you.

One last thing to keep in mind: no matter what your take on swearing, it’s never okay to direct your curses at someone else.

Fate, the universe, the hockey gods? Sure. But putting a co-worker down is never acceptable, no matter how open your office is.

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6 Comments on “Swearing in the Office: It’s the Workplace’s Four-Letter Word Dilemma

  1. This is going off of what happened at PyCon over the weekend: if you’re in a professional environment, a generic curse word under your breath is one thing, but you gotta keep things PC. Jokes that are sexual in nature, or jokes/comments that could offend members of certain groups (as in groups that have been historically disenfranchised in many industries and professions) should be HUGE no-nos.

    It’s funny because before I read this I read an editorial on the PyCon incident, where he defended the jokes arguing “we’re a weird bunch in IT should be able to be ourselves!” (not an exact quote, just a summary) Sorry, but even in quirky professions, you still need to be respectful.

  2. The distinction the article makes between swearing in general and directing those words at others is key. We swear pretty liberally in my office, but there’s a general understanding that we do not level that kind of language in anger, or at people.

  3. Joseph – it is definitely a cultural thing and there is no ‘yes/no’ answer that applies to every situation. I guess if anyone wants to figure out whether their culture supports a few curses here and there, it’s best to look at what the management team do.

    In some cases, it’s ok to swear a little, and even with some managers, it’s not ok to do it- so the acceptance of it changes depending on who is listening!

    – Razwana

  4. Personally, I don’t think it is ever right to swear in front of customers, and maybe that puts me in the minority. I have no problem with someone venting and dropping a f-bomb behind closed doors, but you’d better not do something like that in front of one of our customers! Not that they haven’t heard it before (we are in the construction industry, after all), but it is a very unprofessional way to express yourself. Even the tamed down versions of “salty language” can be unprofessional, although probably much less offensive to some. The thing to remember is that different people have different tolerances for language, so adjust your language accordingly.

    As for swearing amongst co-workers, again, you never know what makes someone uncomfortable or offended, so think about how you are being received. Remember that you never know who might overhear you, so be smart with your words. You may think you have the right to express yourself any way you like…and you do. You also have the right to look for other work.

  5. There’s a difference between talking to customers and talking to other members of staff. I think with customers you should never swear, but among other members of staff they may not be comfortable with it.

    At my workspace, we have an employee who isn’t comfortable with swearing, so when chatting with her there isn’t swearing, but it’s much more lax with other members of staff. It’s all down to personal prefernces, but they need to be known straight away!

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