Swearing in the Workplace – Is it Acceptable or Not?

Having a bit of a ‘potty mouth’ I was greatly excited by the recent scientific findings that those who swear are of higher average intelligence, have a bigger vocabulary, a better ability to deal with emotional situations and have a higher pain threshold. This got me thinking about how it relates to the modern workplace and whether swearing is more or less acceptable these days?

Swearing at Work: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Swearing is relatively common in today’s modern workplace. Workers let off steam, become frustrated over work issues or with work pressures and deadlines – it’s just part and parcel of a regular day in a typical workplace. Whilst swearing is almost always part of the general workplace culture, how much swearing is ‘too much’ and when is it not acceptable? Can it be offensive enough to warrant termination? Where should employers draw the line?

The Fair Work Commission decision in the Smith v Aussie Waste Management Pty Ltd in 2015, concerned an employee who was terminated for swearing at his supervisor in a series of phone conversations. The commission found that his language didn’t warrant termination, though they acknowledged that it was unacceptable behaviour. The bottom line is that it isn’t uncommon for swearing to occur in the waste management industry and firing him was deemed unfair by the Commission as his bad language wasn’t a verbal or physical attack on his supervisor.

When swearing is part of a verbal or physical attack on another coworker or supervisor, then it can be a valid reason to fire an employee. In the Horner v Kallis Bros Pty Ltd case in 2016, Mr Horner used the ‘f-word’ numerous times, directed at his supervisor even after asked to stop swearing. Even though the Commission recognized that swearing is part of this work culture, they deemed Mr Horner’s foul language as abusive towards his supervisor, which necessitated disciplinary action – in this case, the consequence was dismissal of Mr Horner. One of the determining factors involved how the swear word was not used only as an adjective, but in an obviously aggressive manner towards a supervisor. Therefore, his termination was deemed fair by the Commission.

Workplace Culture

Workplace culture is often determined by the type of workplace. For instance, historically, ‘blue collar’ industries, like transport, mines, and factories, often tolerate a higher level of swearing. Here, the ‘f-bomb’ is dropped into day-to-day conversation on a regular basis and doesn’t (usually) surprise or offend anyone. On the other hand, hospitals and schools are examples of work environments in which you are less likely to hear bad language. I would say in the corporate sector it is probably more a part of daily life than expected; swearing, especially when combined with humour, is an essential de-stressor in a pressurized work environment. If setting policies on workplace behavior and swearing employers should take their working environment into consideration.

How Can You Know When Swearing Has Gone Too Far?

It can be difficult to clearly define what is acceptable and when disciplinary action is required but a common sense approach should minimize any issues. The Fair Work Commission cases mentioned above help clarify certain factors that make some occurrences of swearing worse than others but clearly there is a big difference between general swearing to let off steam compared with it being part of a physical or verbal attack, creating an aggressive environment, making people feel uncomfortable or being excessively obscene.

What Can Management Do?

If swearing is excessive in the workplace, or if some employees are unhappy with that part of the workplace culture, you can do things like use a swear jar. I have instigated this in companies before and it can be a really positive thing as you can use the proceeds for a team building event or for fundraising and it can raise morale and increase fun.

Obviously expectations on behavior and what is not acceptable in the workplace must be outlined in the code of conduct and introduced in employee inductions and there must be a consistent message. If anyone takes it too far, a quiet word to explain how some people could find it offensive or make them uncomfortable usually has the desired effect. The important thing to remember is in what context was it used and who were the audience. Remember also that management must set the tone for what is acceptable and lead by example.

The Modern Office

Personally I have found that swearing is a much more common and acceptable occurrence in the modern workplace. I have noticed candidates mentioning that the interviewer swore and I have been in many high level meetings where no one has held back on the swearing. In conclusion I think that it can be quite healthy to swear as a means for stress release or to humanize a situation and can also demonstrate that you are passionate about the topic being discussed. However, you need to judge the situation to make sure that no one is offended or made to feel uncomfortable and I still believe there are situations where it should be avoided such as in job interviews or meeting someone for the first time.

I appreciate that this is quite a polarizing topic so I am keen to get people’s thoughts and feedback…