Employee sacked for swearing wins job back

by Stephanie Zillman14 Jun 2012

A Brisbane employee who was sacked for swearing at his employer has won his job back after the workplace watchdog ruled his dismissal was too harsh.

Fair Work Australia (FWA) this week ordered the reinstatement of security guard Craig Symes, who was sacked for telling his boss to “get f ... ed”. The employee had been employed by Linfox Armaguard and was fired last year after repeatedly verbally abusing his manager and using foul language.

Symes had apologised to the manager for complaining about the “f ... ing roster”, but was summarily dismissed for misconduct. 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.

The commissioner added that she believed the working relationship between the formally dismissed worker and his manager could be satisfactorily repaired.

Foul language in the workplace – things to consider

  • obscene 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, so 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


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.


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