When a Foul Mouth Might Get You Fired—And When It Might Not

Scaramucci’s firing raises questions about cursing on the job

By Dana Wilkie Aug 4, 2017
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​In today's workplaces, which may seem more relaxed and casual than those of decades past, how acceptable is it to curse on the job?

Certainly fired White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci discovered that it wasn't acceptable after he used profanities to describe colleagues to a reporter for The New Yorker. Scaramucci found himself out of a job this week after President Donald Trump concluded that the comments "were inappropriate for a person in that position," according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

What constitutes acceptable profanity at work depends on the context in which the obscenities are voiced, the tone of the profanity, the target of the profanity, the audience listening to it or reading it, and the precise words that are used, workplace experts said.

"Work is often stressful, frustrating and demanding, and—depending on the culture of your place of work—expressing your emotions periodically with nasty words might be expected and tolerated," said James O'Connor, founder of the Lake Forest, Ill.-based Cuss Control Academy, which aims to "increase awareness of the negative impact bad language has on society and on individuals who swear too frequently or inappropriately," according to the academy's website.

"It also depends on who is swearing, why, what words are used and who hears them. If the boss swears for any reason, others feel entitled to let their language fly," O'Connor said. "However, swearing at a co-worker can intensify conflict. Swearing in front of a customer can be a bad reflection on the employee and the company's reputation. And chronic cursers who swear for no particular reason and don't know any adjective other than variations on the F-word are no fun to work with."

In the political work world, cursing is common behind the scenes, but less so in front of news cameras or journalists. A public tirade of profanity aimed at specific people is almost always unacceptable, whether in politics or elsewhere, experts said.

John F. Kelly, Trump's new chief of staff, fired Scaramucci after the latter, in his conversation with The New Yorker reporter, used crude and profane language to describe members of the president's staff, including Reince Priebus, Kelly's predecessor, and Stephen K. Bannon, chief White House strategist.

"Scaramucci's use of profanity fell outside what is acceptable, mostly because of the public nature of the comments," said John Challenger, CEO of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "While politics is full of colorful language, the fact that he used it with a reporter to bash a co-worker shows disrespect and unprofessionalism, and in most companies might hurt morale. This wasn't a case of constructive criticism."

[SHRM members-only Express Request: Managing Political Discussions]

"We realize that politicians as well as top executives have disagreements and swear like just about everyone," said O'Connor, who is also author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing (Three Rivers Press, 2000). "Hardly anyone today gives a damn if you say 'damn' or 'hell,' but it hurts when you say, 'God damn you' or 'Go to hell.' When you attack someone publicly … you make a widespread bad impression."

When Cursing May Be OK

That said, there are instances when profanity has a place at work, said Yehuda Baruch, professor of management studies and research director at the Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton in the U.K.

"There are many options where use of profanity will be well-received by colleagues," said Baruch, who with co-researcher Stuart Jenkins has studied swearing in the workplace. "One would need to use a rare commodity called common sense. For example, certain swear words can generate a sense of team culture and close connection. [Cursing] may bring a sense of urgency and emphasis when a more senior person talks to her or his team."

For one of Baruch and Jenkins' studies, 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 accounted for most of the 10 to 20 people in each focus group.

Most swearing the researchers 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.

"If you have clients who swear, you might [be tempted] to converse with dirty words in order to connect with them, but it's better not to," O'Connor advised.

Challenger agreed: "Typically speaking, using profane language in front of customers or clients, especially with whom a solid relationship has yet to be built, is considered unacceptable and unprofessional."

Younger managers and professionals were more tolerant about employees cursing, while executives swore less frequently, Baruch and Jenkins discovered.

"In my studies, even medical doctors and lawyers use profanity when talking between themselves," Baruch said. "It helps, for example, to release stress. Gender may be an issue; we found that women use more profanity when it is an all-female environment but will be less inclined to do so in mixed-gender teams."

Finally, the researchers found that swearing can be a valuable release valve in high-stress workplaces. "As long as the employees are swearing, they may not be happy, but they are coping," they wrote in their research.

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

Workplace Profanity Policies?

Should companies have written policies about cursing on the job?

O'Connor said that would be "overkill and practically impossible."

"Some words are worse than others," he said, but not everyone agrees on what those words are. "You can't be specific or make a list of forbidden words, tolerated words or situations in which bad words can be funny if said in an unexpected or light way."

Challenger said most HR departments can address cursing simply by including language in their policies about respecting co-workers. Rather than write official policies about profanity, he said, "it's most likely better and more efficient to take issues of crass language on a case-by-case basis.

"If a worker feels disrespected or threatened by the language, HR should get involved. But casual swearing that does not have any adverse impact on business conditions, co-worker relations, or customer or client care is probably not cause for HR intervention."

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