Drop an F-bomb? HR limits promotion of potty mouths

by Stephanie Zillman30 Jul 2012

While swearing is now far less taboo than it once was in the workplace, according to a new report HR and employers still have little tolerance for those who drop F-bombs as a matter of course.

More than 2,000 HR professionals and hiring managers were surveyed by Harris Interactive and the results were quite startling: more than 50% said they would be more likely to promote employees who keep their language clean. Swearing calls into question an employee’s professionalism, control, maturity and intelligence, the majority of respondents said.

Yet HR readily admits to being a pot calling the kettle black. More than half said they themselves have been known to drop colourful language at work as well as in front of their supervisors.

Those who identify as ‘swearers’ are a varied demographic, and men are only slightly more likely to swear than women (54% vs 47%). Those employees in the Gen X age group tended to be the worst offenders, while those at the beginning or end of their careers were the least likely to swear on the job.

A recent unfair dismissal case put swearing at work firmly under the spotlight and reignited the discussion on just how far is too far in the swearing stakes. Earlier this year a Brisbane employee won his job back after the workplace watchdog ruled his dismissal for swearing at his employee was too harsh.

Security guard Craig Symes was reinstated by Fair Work after being dismissed by Linfox Armaguard for repeatedly used foul language and telling his boss to “get f ... ed”.

Yet, FWA ruled that while Symes' behaviour was indeed “misconduct”, being sacked for swearing was excessive. “The respondent's workplace is one in which bad language is commonly used and in which ... employees may have received mixed messages about such use,” FWA Commissioner Helen Cargill said in the judgment. Cargill also noted that there was no suggestion that the applicant's words were overheard by other employees; therefore the manager’s authority was not undermined in front of other workers.


James V O’Connor, author of the seminal Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing classifies swearing into casual (“Hello mate, how the f*** are you?”) and causal (“The f***ing photocopier’s f***ed again”). Casual swearing can be intended humour or lazy language when the speaker doesn't make the effort to use a more meaningful word. Causal swearing is caused by an emotion like pain, anger, or frustration. O’Connor, a reformed foul-mouth himself, sensibly suggests cutting out at least casual swearing in the workplace.

Foul language in the workplace – things to consider

  • Explicit language in the workplace is more common, and therefore practically speaking probably more acceptable, in high-stress jobs.
  • Any type of profanity might be offensive to some people, but the biggest problem is when the swearing is directed at co-workers, bosses, employees or customers (swearing at inanimate objects like office machinery is far less likely to be a cause for concern).
  • People who get offended by foul language often won’t inform the speaker of their feelings, but lack of complaints does not mean acceptance.
  • Leaders using bad language risk their co-workers perceiving them to be unable to control emotion or handle situations with the necessary tact and diplomacy, or someone who lacks professionalism.
  • Foul langauge can indicate a limited, or dormant, vocabulary, which is bad for people in roles to which eloquence, articulateness or creativity is central.
  • The use of obscene language is often involved in, or contributes to, sexual harassment cases.
  • A person using vulgar language may be perceived by co-workers as lower in intelligence and patience, or someone who is angry, tense, impatient or frustrated.
  • A person who swears with employees is probably also likely to be using similar crude language with clients and customers, which could present an image problem.
  • Using the occasional bad word here or there is often regarded as different from using frequent long streams of four-letter words.


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  • by lee 30/07/2012 2:05:01 PM

    It is interesting timing for this article , as last week an employee who took employer to FWA for unfair dismaissal, after he was temrinated for swearing at his boss, was successful and FWA has ordered him to be reinstated, stating amonsgts other things that swearing may be a normal part of some Australian workplaces , but also because there were procedural inequities concerning swearing innt aht workplace. .

  • by Cam 1/08/2012 10:33:59 PM

    glad for that last post, procedural inequalities rules for some but not for others

  • by Bernie Althofer 2/08/2012 12:15:49 PM

    Interesting that one can use obscenities towards a boss (or maybe even co-workers) and that this type of conduct or behaviour is condoned to the point where it becomes tolerated. Despite all the rhetoric about treating others with respect and dignity, it seems that the use of colourful language seems in some circumstances to fall outside of there requirements.

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