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February 23, 2023

Swearing at Work 🤬: Is it Ever OK?

Kevin Dunne

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©Getty Images/drante

When I was 21, one of my dreams came true: I got a job as a trainee reporter at my local newspaper, and I loved it.

I didn't love studying to get 100 words per minute shorthand, but I loved everything else. Sure, the hours were long and irregular and involved working weekends, but when anyone asked me what I did, I could tell them I was a journalist. I was somebody, I was going somewhere.

Fast forward a few years, and I was a sports journalist and couldn't have been happier. Part of a three-man team producing three papers and multiple editions. It remains the hardest work of my life.

Then we got taken over and three was to become two. The sports editor was going to retire and not be replaced. So head office sent a shiny-suited executive to handle the negotiations.

When it became clear I wasn't ready to up my workload by half of someone else's work for virtually no pay raise, he decided swearing at me was the answer.

Swearing as an Attempt to Intimidate

I was too young to report the attempted, clearly inappropriate, intimidation to HR or to walk out of the meeting, as I would now. I never did the extra work, never got any extra money, and didn't stay much longer.

The reason I say all this is because a British judge, adjudicating an unfair dismissal case in January, ruled that the "F-bomb" is not as destructive as it once was. Oh, those shifting cultural sands!

Employment judge Andrew Gumbiti-Zimuto, who heard the case about an account manager who complained that her boss swore during a “tense” meeting, said such swear words have a "lack of significance." He added that phrases using the F-word are now "fairly commonplace and do not carry the shock value they might have done in another time."

The account manager won her claim for unfair dismissal but lost her claims of direct age, race and sex discrimination and victimization.

Swearing Can Relieve Stress

Now I've always been a swearer. In the pub, playing soccer, and, I admit, in the office. In fact, I’ve always loved swearing – it can be funny, relieve stress and get your point across.

Swearing is not necessarily bad per se, it’s about context and culture. As one U.K.-based HR manager told me, "It's an interesting one, and every workplace and person will be different. We don't have a policy on swearing, but it would all be wrapped up in conduct and the intention/perception of the words used in context.

"As a rule, I don't think you should swear. But there is something about 'knowing your audience' and colleagues. And possibly, once you've got to know people a little better, it may be acceptable to throw in the odd low-key swear, but probably not the f-word!"

"If the person on the other end of them perceives them to be threatening or inappropriate, then that isn't OK. That is when we would have a conduct issue.”

The issue of swearing at work and its impact has also attracted academic investigation. One such study in the Journal of Managerial Psychology interviewed 52 lawyers, medical doctors and business executives in the U.K., France and the U.S.A. to explore the use and misuse of swearing in the workplace.

The researchers found that:

  • Swearing can be a great stress reliever. Nearly all respondents swore at work, mainly due to stress. Swearing over the phone or in written communications was off-limits, though, and most people wouldn't swear around religious colleagues.
  • It can be a pressure valve. Swearing was likened to having a cigarette to relax after a difficult negotiation, while others said it provided cathartic relief.
  • It can help you to make friends at work. While swearing around suppliers, clients or patients was seen as a no-no, sharing a few cuss words around colleagues increased the sense of belonging to a group. And, used in a humorous way, helped to develop friendships.

As for whether swearing by men or women is viewed differently, both were viewed equally dimly! A study in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology reported, "Speakers using profanity had poorer impression ratings on several variables, including overall impression, intelligence, and trustworthiness." The report continued, "there was no evidence to support the hypothesis that women using profanity have lower impression ratings than men who use profanity."

"Sticks and Stones" Adage Is Rubbish

What does the average team member think about swearing at work? A straw poll of my colleagues in the Mind Tools content team would suggest that swearing about a situation can be acceptable, but directing it at an individual crossed the line.

Managing editor Keith Jackson said, "Swearing can be an unequivocal shorthand for delivering my verdict on a particular situation and it can be an instant, stress-busting pressure valve. But there are degrees of swearing, from a ‘pardon my French’ slip of the tongue minor expletive to an unacceptable wallpaper-peeling stream of invective.

"I'd never, privately or in public, aim a swear word at a person at work, or at a particular piece of their work. That's unprofessional at best, and bullying and abusive at worst – and I'd be the first to step in if I heard anyone else doing it."

Fellow managing editor Charlie Swift said, "I've always thought the sticks and stones saying is rubbish, words can be very harmful. The point about intention is important to me. That is, distinguishing between swearing being background comment and it being aimed at a person. The latter can be a form of violence. Think microaggressions – background, unthinking behavior and words that routinely do harm, chipping away at people's self-esteem, and sense of safety."

Writer Simon Bell added, "Judging what's 'appropriate' is difficult. There needs to be consensus in the group that it's OK to vent sometimes, and trust that people won't abuse the privilege by using swearing aggressively."

What's your take on swearing in the workplace? Do you do it? Are you offended by it? You may be interested in the following Mind Tools resources, related to this topic:

Five Ways to Deal With Rudeness in the Workplace
Bad Behavior at Work
Good Manners in the Office

Kevin Dunne

About the Author:

Kevin began training as a journalist on his local newspaper in 1989. He went on to spend 17 years at The Sun newspaper as a sports journalist and travel writer, and his work has been published in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Sunday Times. He joined the Mind Tools content team in 2019 and is also a keen golfer, traveler and eater.

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