Is it all right to swear on the job?
During my first weeks on the job in a brief and non-illustrious stint as a
communicator some years ago, I forgot to pull the trigger on a scheduled
An senior executive from our company phoned me from his office down the
hall and set my ear ringing with shouted rebukes. Yet when I hung up, all I
recalled were the F-bombsâ€”not anything he might have wanted me to do next.
Did I understand that I’d blown it? Oh, you bet. Was the profanity
effective? Your call.
That’s the thing about swearing at workâ€”or, less often, in written
communications. It might just be counterproductive. For some (especially
younger workers) curses are as unremarkable as dropping a “you know” into a
sentence. Others find it distracting or off-putting.
Overlapping the two are those who distinguish between cursing at
someone, and the overexcited co-worker who slips into profanity when
regaling the lunchroom with the time he was hiking in Oregon and came face
to face with a f—ing Sasquatch.
[Related: Take our survey on the State of Internal Communications (and get a free report!)]
So is cursing a good idea at work, or not?
Preserving workplace decorum
Employers’ policies and guidelines often mandate that colleagues speak to
one another respectfully, says Jessica Golden
Cortes, and attorney with the New York firm of Davis & Gilbert LLP.
In certain states such as California, employers of a certain size must
train managers in anti-abusive workplace conduct, she says. This includes
instructing managers not to swear at their subordinates because it might be
perceived as “abusive” and could contribute to a perceived hostile work
“While it would not likely be practical to forbid swearing in the workplace
altogether, or to try to enforce that on a daily basis,” Golden Cortes
says, “certainly employees should be encouraged to speak to one another
respectfully at all times, and to do their best not to swear, and certainly
not to direct expletives at other colleagues.”
Two sides to every blue streak
Whatever your stance on workplace cursing, you’ll find arguments to bolster
your case. Citing a study by CareerBuilder.com, a Forbes piece titled “Is Swearing Appropriate At Your Work?” stated that 81 percent of employers surveyed believe swearing at work
“brings an employee’s professionalism into question.”
If, on the other hand, you enjoy spouting off like Tony Soprano, a host of
articles offer their support. A Chicago Tribune columnist
that “swearing at work is just fine.”
wants you to know that “profanity can help you seem more likable.” (The
publication perhaps undercuts its thesis by drawing examples from the least
likeable class of homo sapiens on earth: politicians.)
reports, “It’s normal for millennials to say ‘sâ€”’ and ‘fâ€”’ at work, and new
research finds that younger women are among the most likely demographic to
drop the f-bomb in the office.”
The proliferation of in-office cursing is a manifestation of a greater
cultural change. Broadcast television, once careful to stick to G-rated
language, has expanded its lexicon of epithets. Literary publications that
once blanched at vulgarisms now dump them like tapioca pearls into bubble
It was already quaint in 1984 when an archivist at a New Yorker-like
magazine in Jay McInerney’s novel “Bright Lights, Big City” complained
about “a certain so-called film critic … [who] has trashy taste, not to
mention a filthy mouth.” The archivist pulls out a bound copy and shows the
protagonist precisely when a certain four-letter word first appeared:
There! In 1976! Yet a search of The New Yorker archives this week revealed
“about 1,800 results” for the F-bomb, most notoriously when it was used it
five times in one sentence.
Falling back on grawlixes
The Tribune column cites a study that found that “profanity was associated
with less lying and deception at the individual level, and with higher
integrity at the society level.” Count me skeptical, but it’s amusing to
read this in a publication where the writer must resort to cartoon
(“%$&# you”) to make his argument.
Few organizations drop curses into their outward-facing communications,
although one occasionally runs across consultants who salt their blog posts
with potty-mouthed prose. Red Bull surely is responding to its demographic
when it balances 11 F-words with 11 s–ts in a
brand journalism piece
called, “2 Sketchy Days With Mac DeMarco.”
Forbes urges a broader view, stating that rather than listing inappropriate
words, “we’re more interested in the message people are sending at work. Do
your words inspire greater engagement, commitment, and performance? Or do
they suck the energy out of the people around youâ€”curse words or not?”
Still another way to look at swearwords is that they are headlice on the
language, like the “ums” and “you knows” that are so difficult to groom
from our conversations. If you get in the habit of saying them, they are
nearly impossible to get rid of.
And if words risk offending people and add zero meaning, perhaps it’s worth
combing them out.