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Profanity in the Workplace

Profanity is the common crutch of the conversational cripple.
— David Keuck

I am working with a great entrepreneur who runs a very efficient operation and is very successful. His assistant, however, has every one of his managers up in arms. Why? Well, he uses a ton of profanity when he gets upset. The managers are very unhappy with this primarily because the assistant’s use of profanity is causing a morale issue throughout the business.

When I interviewed the assistant, he said that he thought his use of profanity was fine, as the owner used it all of the time. He could not see why people would get upset with him if he is only using the same words his boss uses. Obviously, the problem originated with the entrepreneur, and not the assistant.

The entrepreneur just did not understand how his behavior could have such an effect on his assistant and his whole operation. A leader must constantly demonstrate the behavior that they want in their workplace. Therefore, I explained that, if the entrepreneur was going to ask his assistant not to use profanity, he was going to have to stop using it first.

Studies have shown that profanity is increasing, and many people believe that this is because TV and the movies use it all of the time. I believe that the best strategy for stopping profanity in the workplace is clearly explaining to the staff why it is just unacceptable and building this into the employee manual. Of course, no amount of instruction or documentation in an employee manual is going to stop swearing if the entrepreneur does not do it as well.

Jim O’Connor, the owner of his own PR firm, knew that he had a profanity problem, and he went looking for something to help him stop this use of language. As he could not find any help, he founded the Cuss Control Academy in 1998, and in 2000, he published the book, Cuss Control: the Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. He has been on over 85 TV shows, including Oprah, talking about why profanity is bad for business and how to correct it.

Now before everyone comes to the false conclusion that I never use profanity, let me just say that it occasionally finds its way into my vocabulary as well. If I hit my finger with a hammer, I am going to cuss a bunch. However, I try to never let it happen in the workplace. Does it occasionally slip out? Of course, but it happens maybe once a year when I really screw up.

Profanity is just not acceptable in today’s work environment. Not so much because the language is offensive, but more so because it signals a lack of professionalism. In addition, profanity is frequently the match that can set off the stick of dynamite.

Legally, the use of profanity can — and frequently does — cause problems under today’s discrimination and harassment laws. There have been numerous cases where profanity has been used to show sexual harassment in the workplace. If you are wondering how someone could be sued for using profanity in front of everyone indiscriminately, the answer is perception. If someone is offended by profanity, they will frequently feel like they are being targeted. Employment attorneys will tell you that preparing a defense for such actions is extremely difficult. Many judges and juries are just not inclined to excuse profanity.

Profanity is just bad business as it makes a very bad impression. Additionally, people who swear are considered to have volatile personalities, and few people want to be around them. Finally, many people are offended by the use of profanity.

Now go out and make sure your company has a policy on profanity. More importantly, however, make sure that you are a great example of the behavior that you want your staff to follow.

You can do this!

Jerry Osteryoung is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University. He is also the Director of the Entrepreneurship Program at FSU and Executive Director of the Jim Moran Institute of Global Entrepreneurship. He can be reached by e-mail at jostery@comcast.net or by phone at 850-644-3372.