What did you say? Watch your mouth!

A friend told me recently about her experience working years ago in a rough-and-tumble office environment. My response was a mixture of amazement and shock.

Could that really happen today? Yes, but it shouldn’t.

My friend told me about working in a deadline-driven, male-dominated industry. Especially as the daily stress built up, the cuss words would fly. The “big boss” and his supervisors seemed to curse the most. And that set the tone for the entire profanity-filled workforce.

To fit in and not look prudish, the female employees “let ’er fly” as often — if not more often — than some of the men. Nearly every hour of the day, the office was blue with crude, locker room talk.

The culture was so rough that no one dared to invite clients into the workspace. Most client meetings were conducted in the “sanitized” company lobby or someplace off-site.

That was until the “big boss” ended up being fired for not just his bad mouth. And a “new sheriff” came to town, who laid down the law in the office. No more swearing — or at least tone it down — said the new boss.

What can and is said in the “public arena” today would have made us blush and triggered serious backlashes just a few years ago. In the past, when a politician slipped up and blurted out a cuss word, he apologized profusely. But today, we hear even our top elected officials commonly using swear words of all stripes.

“Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer,” wrote Mark Twain more than a century ago, proving that cussing is nothing new. Twain, after all, was quite a cusser. He should know. And history is rife with the profane utterances of our great and not-so-great leaders.

Recent studies even maintain that swearing can be “positive.” It may give a boss, political candidate or elected leader a sense of camaraderie or an image of being just a “regular guy.” It may be used to provide attention-getting “pop” to a political rally. So if our political and business leaders are using profanity, how the heck do we keep our employees from doing the same? And if we just ignore the behavior, how do we protect ourselves from accusations that our workplaces are “hostile”?

It’s a dilemma that more and more employers are facing. I know, because I have been fielding employer questions about their “cussed workplaces.”

Here are some of the advice I give them:

Likely an outright ban on swearing would be impossible to enforce. A hand slammed into a drawer or a mistake made on a big client’s order are likely to provoke at least a mumbled four-letter word. While enforcement of company policies should be consistent, case-by-case evaluation may be a more prudent course.

Discourage swearing in the workplace and in front of clients. Emphasize the need to treat everyone with respect. Insist that managers and supervisors — all the way to the top — set a good example.

Consider the context. Is a worker or supervisor occasionally swearing or is it a pervasive behavior? Counsel workers that swearing is unacceptable, interferes with workplace productivity, hurts morale and reflects badly on the business. If the behavior is habitual, recommend an employee seek professional counseling. “Cuss control academies” actually exist to help curb swearing.

Evaluate what is being said. There is swearing that on its face should not be tolerated. Slurs targeting race, creed, gender, sexual identity are examples. An outright ban on this type of swearing can and should be enforced.

Evaluate how language is being used. It’s one thing to rip off a string of generally directed profanity when you smash your toe or drop your cellphone in the toilet. But it’s another thing when abusive language is directed at a specific person or group to provoke fear, bully and suggest violence.

Don’t ignore swearing. Be watchful. There is a fine line between occasional slips of the tongue and abusive, aggressive behavior that creates a “hostile work environment” and the basis for a lawsuit.

The workers who have the “potty mouths” are hurting their personal “brands,” as well. They are often viewed as out-of-control hot heads destined for dead-end careers.

Swearing in the workplace may seem harmless. And maybe occasional swearing is. But when pervasive swearing goes unchecked, both the cusser and the boss can end up in deep doo.

Scroll to Top