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Swearing at Work: Top tips for Employers

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“I think the reason that swearing is both so offensive and so attractive is that it is a way to push people’s emotional buttons, and especially their negative emotional buttons. It has shock value, because taboo words soak up emotional connotations and are processed involuntarily by the listener; you can’t will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means.”

·         Stephen Pinker

Dealing with profane language in the workplace is largely subjective. Such language is a sensitive issue that requires a balanced approach to ensure a respectful and comfortable workplace environment for everyone.

Swear words and foul language are an inevitable part of working environments. An ‘f bomb’ can relieve anxiety, negative emotions, deter physical violence and is even noted to lead to enhanced pain tolerance according to current psychological science, in particular the work of Timothy Jay, the world’s leading expert on colourful language and professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts1. Indeed, in many professions, swearing is just one part of the working vocabulary.

However, when people swear too often or use dirty language that makes others uncomfortable, then it crosses the border of what is deemed acceptable, and may even fall foul of the law if deemed to be a form of discrimination.

At HR:4UK, we have some advice that can help employers if you feel that swear words and offensive language are becoming an issue in your workplace. So, here we are: 5 top tips for dealing with foul and offensive language in the workplace.

Tips for dealing with foul and offensive language

1.  Establish Boundaries for Swearing at Work

Set clear expectations regarding swearing, offensive language and behaviour. The best way to do this is to implement an effective policy and uphold it under threat of disciplinary action. At HR:4UK, we can help you as an employer craft a policy around swearing that suits your business needs. Once this code of conduct is put in place, ensure that all employees are aware of the standards expected of them, and that verbal abuse and vulgar language are not appropriate. In particular, emphasize the potential consequences for breaching the code of conduct and related policies.

2.  Lead by Example

Leadership plays a vital role in shaping the company culture, and that includes swearing. As an employer, if you encourage senior management and supervisors to exemplify professional behaviour and standards, then that will flow down naturally to the rest of the staff. Remember that it is ultimately down to the employer to set the tone for the entire business. Obscene language treads on more than just political correctness – if left to fester, it can rear its head in the wrong context and cause damage to the company as a whole, and may even lead to discrimination claims and court cases if unaddressed.

3.  Address Issues Promptly and Privately

If an incident occurs which oversteps the mark, the key thing to do is to address it promptly, privately and impartially. Have a confidential conversation with the employee involved to understand the context, circumstances and intent behind their words. No two situations are ever the same, and as such, it’s crucial to understand the wider situation, the reason for the swearing, before jumping to conclusions. There may be mitigating factors at play which might explain the use of this word or that.

Afterwards, share the company’s expectations for respectful communication and emphasize the fact that a respectful and inclusive environment is one which is to everyone’s benefit.

4.  Provide Training and Support for Offensive Language

If necessary, offer sessions on effective communication and the value of professionalism. Often, a harsh reprimand for bad, inappropriate or offensive language will only serve to ingrain whatever prejudices and practices were there in the first place; instead, strive to alter the mindset of the person in question, rather than simply browbeat them.

This is especially true if the swear word or words in question pertain to certain protected characteristics, because if it continues, such uses of aggressive language can lead to a formal grievance or claim being made against the business. This is when swearing emerges as harassing language, which is against the law under the Equality Act of 2010.

Sessions can also teach the value of respectful language, of different words and approaches to swearing, and without the hectoring and condescension that both employee and employer might be concerned with – if done right. It’s also a good idea to train managers on the use of curse words so that any swearing in the workplace is dealt with in accordance to company policy.

In addition, it’s also helpful to provide an outlet for grievances so that employees do not feel the need to release their frustrations in a stream of offensive expletives. Simply having someone designated to listen to their thoughts and respect their feelings on certain topics can have a transformative effect on the individual.

5.  Progressive Discipline for Inappropriate Language

Investigating complaints thoroughly when dealing with swearing in the workplace should be your starting point, and one which begins early. After, be progressive in your approach to your disciplinary policy. Start with informal discussions and reminders of the businesses’ standards and approach to inappropriate language, and, if the swearing or behaviour persists, then a more serious penalty should be considered.

This disciplinary action can include written warnings, mandatory training sessions or other appropriate measures. Consistency is key: in order to maintain a fair workplace, it of course has to be uniform in its discipline, and for everyone. Playing favourites is a sure-fire way to alienate your employees and breed resentment. Avoid it at all costs. If a manager swears, they should receive the same procedure for foul language that any other employee would.

Conclusion

Addressing abusive language and harassment is important, especially when it comes to sensitive topics. That said, what’s just as important is to create an environment which makes employees feel comfortable airing their concerns. If a person has issues that they need to discuss, make sure they have the space to have them raised and addressed; likewise, if the behaviour or bad language of a colleague is offensive or affecting someone’s ability to work, then they too should feel as though they have means of recourse.

Open communication with colleagues, fair procedure, a commitment to dealing with issues without delay and a clear set of policies will ensure that your workplace remains a positive one which people enjoy working in.

At HR:4UK, we have decades of experience in helping businesses improve their working culture. For employee handbooks, policies or even just advice, get in touch with our dedicated team of experts today on 01455 444 222 or email [email protected] and we can help your business change for the better.

1. Jay, T. (1st June 2023) Why Swearing is a Sign of Intelligence, Helps Manage Pain and More.https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/26/health/swearing-benefits-wellness/index.html

James Dawson

James is our resident wordsmith and has many years of experience in writing about a huge variety of topics from HR to Occupational Health and beyond. He has been published in numerous magazines and news outlets, and especially enjoys researching and analysing the current trends in the modern business world.