What a load of b******s: how to deal with swearing in the workplace

Say it quietly but, it seems, the “S” word is alive and well in the workplace and having a positive effect on morale.

Swearing, according to recent research from the University of East Anglia-based Norwich Business School, is regularly used to reinforce solidarity among staff, enabling them to develop social relationships and express their feelings of frustration and stress.

“Employees use swearing on a continuous basis but not necessarily in a negative, abusive manner,” said Prof Yehuda Baruch, who published the report.

“We hope this study will serve not only to acknowledge the part that swearing plays in our work and our lives, but also to indicate that leaders sometimes need to think differently and be open to intriguing ideas,” he added.

But, at HR consultancy Croner, business support helpline manager Alan Phillips is afraid these findings will give employees a carte blanche to turn the air blue at work – a situation, he says, that could result in employers facing discrimination and constructive dismissal claims.

He said: “Employers should be discouraging, rather than promoting swearing throughout the workforce as it could become the cause of grievances from employees who feel discriminated against because of a racial slur or offensive swear word.”

Phillips advises employers puts blanket no swearing policy in place as it is easier to implement and ensures that no part of the workforce feels it is being treated differently.

“We would always advise putting ‘inclusive’ policies in place, whether prohibitive or permissive, when it comes to employment issues,” he said.

But to ban swearing outright in the workplace would be “unnatural”, says Prof Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, who draws the distinction between swearing that is offensive and expletives which create a foul atmosphere.

“If you are swearing at your computer because it is slow – that is a completely different form of swearing than if you are trying to put someone down,” he said.

“In the vast majority of cases people simply use their social skills and judgement to work out what is appropriate and what is not.”

Cooper also questions whether swearing reduces stress. It may be cathartic in the short term, he says, but the underlying cause of the stress is more than likely to still be there. If employers really want to cut out cursing, they are best advised to deal with whatever is the root cause of the stress and frustration in the workplace.

Roger Steare, visiting professor in Business Ethics at City University’s Cass Business School, also believes legislating against bad language at work is not the way for employers to reduce unwanted swearing.

“Rules are fine when you are seven or eight years old but for adults you are simply taking away the responsibility to decide what is right,” he said.

“Employers should work at be building trust in the workplace and generating a sense of duty and respect.”

This can be done, according to Steare, by openly talking about the issue, at team meetings, for instance, and by senior managers setting the right example through their conduct.

Steare also thinks that the high level of swearing in UK offices and factories is indicative of an economical culture where “too many people are focussed on short terms results.”

“Everyone is so focused on the targets they have to hit and the school fees they have to pay that they are losing sight of what is important to create a good workplace ” he said.

“They are losing self-control and patience with colleagues, whereas they should be focussing on showing each other respect.”

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