The F Word: What’s appropriate in the workplace

Given that we spend a large proportion of our lives at work, often in stressful situations, it is understandable that some of us may drop the odd f-bomb at work.

Given that we spend a large proportion of our lives at work, often in stressful situations, it is understandable that some of us may drop the odd f-bomb at work. However, whilst this would be accepted and even applauded in some workplaces, in others it might be seen as highly offensive and result in disciplinary action being taken against the foul mouthed employee. It is therefore important for both managers and employees to understand what is appropriate and what isn’t before throwing an expletive into a workplace conversation or taking disciplinary action against an employee.

A recent study found that employees who frequently swear in the workplace may lose out on a promotion, with 57% of employers saying they would be less likely to promote someone who swears as it calls their professionalism into question, demonstrates a lack of maturity and control and makes an employee appear less intelligent. However, despite this, employers are not innocent, with 25% admitting that they have sworn at their employees.

Whilst it may seem obvious, not every occasion an employee swears is likely to warrant the intervention of an employer or manager. The context, the type of swearing and the audience are all important factors in determining whether swearing in the workplace is inappropriate.

An important consideration which must be made in the context of considering swearing at work is whether there are any workplace policies that regulate such language. In Symes v Linfox Armaguard Pty Ltd [2012] FWA 4772 an employee was dismissed after he told his supervisor to “get f…d” and complained about the “f…g roster”. The employee later apologised to his supervisor. The employer had not historically ensured compliance with the ‘no swearing’ policy in place at the workplace. Whilst the Fair Work Commission found that the swearing did amount to misconduct, to dismiss the employee because of his swearing was unfair when other employees had not been previously disciplined.

Swearing at a customer, as most would correctly assume, has been found to be grounds for dismissal. In Roderick Macdougall v SCT Pty Limited T/A Sydney City Toyota [2013] FWC 1077 an employee was terminated after he swore at a customer. The Fair Work Commission rejected the employee’s unfair dismissal claim as customer service was a key part of the employee’s job and his conduct threatened the profitability and reputation of the business.

An important distinction in many cases is whether the swearing is used whilst in a general discussion to describe an inanimate object, for example, a malfunctioning printer, or whether it is specifically directed at a particular person. In Mark Baldwin v Scientific Management Associates (Operations) Pty Ltd [2014] FWC 5174 an employee who swore at his manager using extremely crude and profane language in a threatening manner  and had caused his manager to become fearful for his own safety was found not to have been unfairly dismissed. The Fair Work Commission said:

“there is… a qualitative difference between swearing in the workforce per se and swearing directed to one’s manager (or to another employee) which is not only offensive but highly personalised.”

In some workplaces, swearing at work may be normal and even used as a way to motivate employees. Research has found that swearing can foster team bonding and humanise the people you work with. However, swearing also has the potential to offend, bully and intimidate.

What are the vital considerations in attempting to manage workplace swearing?

  • If there is a ‘no swearing’ policy, enforce it consistently against all employees who swear in the workplace. If there is no policy and swearing is not condoned in the workplace, consider implementing a ‘no swearing’ policy
  • There is a difference between swearing during general discussion and launching into a tirade of swear words against an employee
  • Consider the culture you wish to cultivate. Employees will obviously take cues from their supervisors. If there is a manager swearing up a storm regularly, employees will therefore believe it is ok for them to swear as well
  • Consider the audience which the swearing is directed at. Is the audience likely to be offended? Will the swearing damage the reputation of the business?
  • How serious or offensive are the swear words that were used? If the words were only mildly offensive, consider giving the employee a stern warning

Employees should take particular care to regulate their language in the workplace. Likewise, employers should not disregard poor language if it has the potential to offend or cause harm to other employees, otherwise the employer may be seen to be condoning behaviour which could amount to bullying.

Having a sensible workplace policy in place can provide guidance to employees as to the appropriate language expected within the workplace, without employees feeling too restricted by what they can and can’t say. A policy that is correctly implemented and consistently applied can also provide employers with a source of authority should disciplinary action be necessary against an employee.