Dang It! Cursing Can Get You Warned, or Fired

By Kathy Gurchiek May 5, 2008

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but swear words can get you canned.

A survey of more than 2,000 executives released April 28, 2008, found that 36 percent of U.S. bosses have issued a formal warning and 6 percent have fired a worker for swearing on the job.

Cussin’ topped the list of most punishable offenses. Slightly more than 81 percent of senior execs find working alongside a foul-mouthed employee unacceptable, according to a survey conducted by TheLadders.com, an online provider of senior talent in the $100,000-plus range.

Nearly all (98.7 percent) believe there is such a thing as office etiquette, and close to 70 percent say they would fire an employee for bad office manners. Eighty-two percent have issued an official warning for such offenses as personal calls, loud talking or revealing clothing.

Among managers who have fired employees for office etiquette infractions, the five most common offenses were:

Drinking on the job, 35.2 percent.

  • Leaving the office without telling anyone, 33.6 percent.

Too many personal calls, 28 percent.

However, allowing regular use of profanity builds staff unity, according to an academic study released in a 2007 issue of the Leadership and Organization Development Journal.

“Employees use swearing on a continuous basis, but not necessarily in a negative, abusive manner” to relieve stress or “to reflect solidarity and enhance group cohesiveness,” said Yehuda Baruch, professor of management at the University of East Anglia (UEA), in Norwich, England, in a press release. UEA’s alums include Atonement author Ian McEwan.

Baruch and co-researcher and student Stuart Jenkins studied swearing in the workplace with the aim of challenging leadership styles and to suggest ideas for management best practices.

Jenkins gathered data by working as a temporary staffer in a British mail-order operation that employed 14 workers equally divided between office and warehouse environments. They also used six focus groups—four in the southern United States and two in England—of full- and part-time workers. Students comprised most of the 10 to 20 people in each focus group.

Swearing tends to stop completely, they found, “in situations of unbearably high stress.”

“In high-stress workplaces where swearing is permitted, this can be a valuable signal. As long as the employees are swearing, they may not be happy, but they are coping,” they point out.

However, abusive and offensive swearing should be eliminated where it generates—not relieves—stress, they emphasized. Repeatedly swearing, making threats and verbal abuse “can lead to depression, stress, reduced morale, absenteeism, retention problems, reduced productivity [and can] damage the image of the organization,” they write.

Most swearing they studied was reported by workers at the lower end of the organizational hierarchy and occurred in staff areas or after customers had left; it did not occur in front of or within close proximity to customers.

Younger managers and professionals were more tolerant in what they accepted in employee behavior, executives swore less frequently, and women swore more than might traditionally be expected, especially among themselves, Baruch and Jenkins discovered.

The primary issue for management, Baruch said, “is whether or not to apply a tolerant leadership culture to the workplace and deliberately allow swearing.”

He predicts swearing would continue to rise and become more of an issue for leaders and managers.

“The question is what should we do about it?” Baruch noted. “Certainly in most scenarios, in particular in the presence of customers or senior staff, profanity must be seriously discouraged or banned.

“However, our study suggested that in many cases, taboo language serves the needs of people for developing and maintaining solidarity and as a mechanism to cope with stress. Banning it could backfire,” he said.

“The challenge is to master the art of knowing when to turn a blind eye to communication that does not meet their own standards.”

Managers need to understand how their staff members feel about workplace swearing, he observed.

More than 80 percent of employees in TheLadders.com survey said workplace swearing is unacceptable.

Before employers consult the Illinois-based Cuss Control Academy, however, TheLadders.com survey found there are far worse offenses in employees’ eyes, including eating someone else’s food from the workplace fridge (97.8 percent), bad hygiene (95.6 percent), bad habits (88.2 percent) and drinking on the job (85.7 percent).

In a nod to environmentally conscious behavior, 82 percent cited wasting paper as objectionable behavior.

Other annoyances workers cited: cooking smelly food in the office microwave (74 percent) and sneaking peeks at hand-held devices during meetings (63.5 percent).

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.


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