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Workplace Etiquette: Profanity on the Job


Workplace Etiquette: Profanity on the Job

Swearing at Work May Have Some Benefits but Don’t Go Overboard

By Cherie Berkley, special to

Sometimes swearing and profanity on the job seems second nature: forgetting a deadline (@#$*!), not getting the raise you deserve (that %&$*#&!), or even someone making a silly comment at a meeting (what a $*%&). Professionals who want to keep their jobs often commit to no cursing in the office, and keep their contentious comments hidden behind clinched smiles. But new research surprisingly shows that workplace swearing may not be as much of a workplace etiquette faux pas as you may think. There is actually occasion where some swearing can be a source of camaraderie among co-workers.

The British study, "Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture: When Anti-Social Becomes Social and Incivility Is Acceptable," analyzes the use of profanity on the job and its workplace etiquette implications — and it’s not all bad. Researchers Yehuda Baruch, a professor of management at the University of East Anglia, and Stuart Jenkins a graduate of the school say that regular profanity on the job allows staff to express their feelings better, but this is far from a license to be a rampant potty mouth. The study appears in Leadership and Organisational Development Journal.

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Language that was once considered taboo is becoming more mainstream. Just listen to the words that were once "bleeped" or banned on TV and radio a mere decade ago that no longer are today. This comfort level with cursing has also started to spill over into the workplace.

Baruch and Jenkins report that "social swearing," which is conversational and not meant to be hurtful, can define relationships between people and groups. The study points out that organizations where there is social swearing among men are characterized by "a lively boisterous communication style with friendly insults." However, there is somewhat of a double standard when it comes to women. "Women swearers are often seen to be of low moral standing," the researchers write. The study also shows that men can gain points by using profanity on the job, but they tend to tone it down around women as a display of workplace etiquette.

Then there is "annoyance" swearing, where you may hear a colleague quietly curse to himself on the other side of your cube because of some unexpected mishap, such as stubbing a toe at his desk. The researchers say this can be a healthy way for employees to blow off steam.

While the researchers say that "apparent misbehavior can serve an organization well," you must use common sense in terms of workplace etiquette and remain professional as an employee no matter what your role. Career coach Agnes Mura also warns that workplace etiquette and tolerance for language and profanity on the job varies by person.. "The etiquette is that when you are in an office environment you have to think of all of the present stakeholders, and you have to keep your language neutral enough that it isn’t offensive to anyone," she says. Mura, who is president of Agnes Mura, Inc. in Los Angeles, says she’s coached clients whose swearing and disregard for workplace etiquette has jeopardized their careers.

"I used to work with someone whose family had this bantering style, and she talked like a sailor," Mura explains. "I had to begin coaching with her when she was on the verge of becoming a vice president because the organization had kind of tolerated it up to that point. But at the point when she was going to sit around the table with other important executives, they were concerned that she would lose respect."

The researchers also highlight the pitfalls of office swearing, noting that not all forms are healthy. They say if workplace etiquette is completely abandoned, repeated swearing and abusive, insulting, and threatening words can kill workplace harmony.

Beverly Langford, president of LMA Communications in Atlanta and author of The Etiquette Edge, agrees. "Those who curse or use offensive language around subordinates and co-workers may be indulging in a form of verbal bullying that borders on abuse," she explains. "Aside from creating an unpleasant environment, this behavior also carries legal risk, as it can easily be construed as harassment."

Another workplace etiquette no-no say Baruch and Jenkins: swearing in front of senior staff or clients.

In the end, what comes out of your mouth is a reflection of your character, so choose your language in the workplace wisely. "Although there are situations when profanity might be tolerated or excused, the only safe choice is to forego a curse and express your feelings – whether you’re angry or elated – in another way," Langford notes.

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