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Taking the Lord's Name in Vain May Seem Harmless to Many, but Not to All

A person putting coins into a jar with a note on it.


People write it all the time in texts. They say it all the time in casual conversation—along with exclamations like "Jesus!" or curses like "God d--- it!"

But what if that offends some workers at your company? Should you ban such language at work? And if someone slips up and mutters "Oh my God" in a meeting, should there be repercussions?

That issue recently surfaced on SHRM Connect, the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) online discussion platform. An HR professional noted that one of her workers is a conservative Christian who "has complained on several occasions that some of his co-workers continually use the Lord's name as their exclamation of choice.

"His co-workers have been asked to stop, but today he just complained again that one of his co-workers exclaimed, 'Jesus H. Christ!' in response to something a co-worker showed them," wrote the poster, who allowed SHRM to publish her comments but not her name or her company's name. "How would you proceed in this situation? I feel a little silly writing someone up for saying 'Jesus H. Christ,' but at the same time, just behave yourself and be professional. The complaining employee also feels that this is harassment."

EEOC Guidance

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notes that it's illegal to harass a person because of his or her religion, and it says this type of harassment "can include … offensive remarks about a person's religious beliefs or practices."

"The law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren't very serious," the EEOC guidance points out. But it added that "harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment."

That guidance may not address the SHRM Connect poster's specific concern, but managers in such circumstances should be sure that employees aren't going out of their way to use offensive language because they know it upsets a co-worker, wrote Jennifer Voigt, SHRM-CP, an HR professional with Amplify Credit Union in Austin, Texas, who agreed to have her name and SHRM Connect comments published.

"The unfortunate truth is that when only one person has an issue with something that is being said or done in an office, that person gets labeled as 'overly sensitive,' or worse," she wrote. "It may help to talk to some of the worst offenders individually about how their behavior affects their co-worker. While saying something off-color once in a blue moon probably won't rise to the level of harassment, if they know that their co-worker is offended by that language and it appears they are using it intentionally on a regular basis to make him uncomfortable, then that could potentially rise to the level of being a hostile work environment."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Other Seemingly Innocuous Phrases May Offend

Other commonly used words or phrases that may seem innocuous to many, but that could offend others, include "going Dutch," which can be construed as a negative stereotype that portrays the Dutch as cheap because they invite someone to a meal but then won't pay for it.

Another is "hold down the fort," which originally meant to protect against Native American intruders. And some people think "rule of thumb" references an antiquated law that allowed men to beat their wives with a stick no wider than a person's thumb.

But unless a company has rules that spell out what types of phrases or curses can't be used at work, it's "tough to ask the colleague who is saying these things to knock it off," said Boston-based workplace behavior expert Beverly Flaxington, author of Understanding Difficult People: The Five Secrets of Human Behavior (ATA Press, 2010). "You have to have a rule about this in order to enforce it."

Some alternatives, she said, might include having a manager pull aside those who are making the offensive comments.

The manager could explain that their colleague is finding the statements offensive and ask that they choose other words in place of the ones they are using, she suggested. She noted, however, that "this won't work in all cases and would depend on the nature of the relationship" between the manager and the employees.

But, Flaxington pointed out, the manager must be careful when talking with those making offensive comments not to make light of the offended person's sensitivities.

The manager could also suggest that the offended worker and the employee making offensive comments talk with each other, she said.

Finally, she suggested, the manager could remind the offended person that he or she likely hears these types of comments frequently at the supermarket, the park or the train station.

"It is hard to legislate this sort of behavior, so sometimes you just have to recognize this and [ask the worker to] let it go." 


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