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Why Employers Should Curtail Workplace Cursing

The summer I was 15 and working at my dad’s bait shop, he posted a sign by the cash register that said, “no cussing.” He didn’t put the sign there to remind me not to curse; it was there to let customers know that swearing was not allowed around my delicate ears. While my ears are not so delicate anymore, I encourage employers to curtail the use of cursing in the workplace by themselves, their employees, and their customers.

Folks at the top of the food chain who swear at work include T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who is known for his potty mouth. In an interview with Business Insider, Legere said, “I think employees relate to the way I speak, customers relate to exactly the way I think and talk.” Perhaps they relate to it, but do they positively respond to it?

Every time we send a message it’s to gain a desired response. Employers and supervisors communicate with their employees primarily to get results. Therefore, they should ask themselves whether their communication inspires greater engagement, commitment, and performance or whether it inspires a negative response.

If their communication is full of four-letter words, they are inspiring a negative response because that’s what swearing does to our bodies. According to Richard Stephens, a senior psychology lecturer at Keele University who studied the effects of cursing, “Swearing increases the heart rate and sets off the body’s flight-or-fight response.” Which is great if you have to fight somebody or run away, but not so great when you’re just trying to do your job.

Constantly cursing is said to be one of the things that got former Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz fired. In his article, “3 Leadership Tips Inspired From Carol Bartz,” Jonathan Kirschner, Psy.D. said, “Bartz coupled her over-confident leadership style with a potty mouth that only functioned to isolate, scare, and anger employees, investors, and ultimately her boss.” Indeed, Bartz told the Wall Street Journal that the one thing she would have done differently during her tenure was to not use the f-word.

So, if you want scared and angry employees, curse away. If not, then don’t.

Employers and supervisors might also want to curtail their employees’ cursing because failure to do so could get them sued. Cursing is not illegal; however, it might infringe upon the religious rights of some employees, which is illegal.

In his article, “When employees’ cursing gets you sued,” Dan Wisniewski describes such a situation. Kellymarie Griffin worked for the City of Portland and repeatedly let her co-workers know that she was opposed to their use of profanity, especially the use of God’s and Jesus’ names as curse words, because of her religious beliefs. One day Griffin sneezed loudly, startling a co-worker who exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” Griffin complained to her team lead, who responded by saying she was sick of Griffin’s Christian attitude, her Christian (expletive) all over her desk, and her Christian (expletive) all over the place. Griffin sued, claiming a hostile work environment. The court found that, “a rational jury could find that at least some of this profanity occurred because of Griffin’s religion” and sent the case to trial.

Finally, employers might want to follow my dad’s lead and ensure their customers keep their language clean while in their establishments. That’s what the owners of Mount Royal Tavern in Baltimore did after getting fed up with “the endless barrage of blue language that was on the increase in the high-ceilinged barroom,” according to Frederick N. Rasmussen’s article in The Baltimore Sun.

Tavern owner Ron Carback said, “I thought we needed a little civility around here,” and set up a large plastic pretzel jar with a sign taped to it that said: “Mount Royal Tavern Cuss Bucket. 25 cents a cuss.” Customers and employees are now watching what they say more closely, and the money that is collected when someone slips is donated to charity. Sure, customers who don’t appreciate the endless barrage of blue language can always go elsewhere, but that’s just the point – they take their business elsewhere.

Mark Twain said, “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” I agree, but in the workplace I suggest that employers limit it to those circumstances.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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