The F-word: will swearing at work get you fired?

Posted on 16 May 2014 by Lucy Gregory

I once knew a director who used to swear. A lot. In fact, he was notorious for the profanity in his emails to the rest of management. One day, after he circulated a particularly enthusiastic email, the CEO called him in.

No one was really offended; the director’s rants were actually quite funny. But it didn’t seem proper for his behaviour to go unchecked.

This was the CEO’s request: if the director wrote an email featuring the F-word more than three times, please could he keep it in his draft box over night. Should he still feel strongly about the matter in the morning, he could send the email. Otherwise, perhaps he could revise it using slightly milder language.

Seems reasonable. Though I heard he ignored the plea – and didn’t stay at the company much longer.

Is it worth the risk?

For those who swear quite naturally, work communication can be tricky.

Most of us have sufficient discipline not to swear in writing at work. It’s unprofessional and a law suit waiting to happen. Let’s not forget the case of the Goldman Sachs executive who, in 2007, described the bank’s sub-prime mortgage offering as ‘shitty’ – twelve times in one email. Ooops. After the bank’s executives were had up in front of a Congressional hearing, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Citygroup all introduced an anti-profanity email policy. A little late.

But for the rest of us with more common sense, what about conversation? If you swear, where should you draw the line?

Arguably, individual words don’t mean anything. What matters is how they’re put together and the context in which they are used. So, in my view, swearing abstractly is fine but swearing at or about people is always unacceptable. You could mutter ‘Sausages’ when dropping a hole punch on your foot. No harm done except to your big toe. But yelling ‘Sausages to you’ while hurling that hole punch at a colleague is abusive, even though the words themselves are innocuous.

The problem with swearing, though, is it can accompany more unpleasant workplace behaviour. It often goes hand in hand with bullying, which can never be excused. And in the Goldman Sachs case it represented general disdain for the bank’s clients, something we heard much of after the financial crash.

Are you undermining your professional image

In a survey carried out by CareerBuilder, the majority of employers said swearing indicates a lack of professionalism, control, maturity and intelligence in their staff. Having said that, it seems a large proportion of employers swear themselves. There may be hypocrisy here, but I think the results reveal another problem with swearing: everyone has their own rules. What’s acceptable to me will not be acceptable to you. And vice versa.

The evidence so far points against swearing at work.

On the other hand, swearing can be a great way to break down boundaries and encourage camaraderie. My best bosses over the years all swore extensively (never at people, I might add), and it was usually good natured. They were opening up and we minions felt part of the team, taken into their confidence.

And since most of us enjoy the odd expletive ourselves, I think it’s unreasonable to hold others to a ‘higher’ standard.

So perhaps there is a place for swearing at work. In moderation. Provided you’re in an accepting environment, you’re not offending other members of staff and you’re not slagging off clients. Most importantly, you must always use your judgement – just because your boss swears doesn’t mean you should join in. After all, you don’t want that ‘f’ to stand for ‘fired’.