Four-letter words in the workplace: does anyone give a ****?

by 30 Mar 2012

Four-letter words in the workplaceSometimes letting out a loud four-letter word can be just what the doctor ordered. But it would be inappropriate to say it at work – or would it?

UK researchers found in a study that swearing actually helped co-workers build relationships with one another and enabled them to express their feelings.

Anne Kreamer from The Harvard Business Review said swearing helped her in her first banking jobs and granted her access to the kind of casual gossiping and information-trading upon which deals are sometimes built. “Swearing,” as one senior female attorney told Kreamer, “gives others, men and women, reciprocal permission to let their hair down and feel comfortable sharing revelations.”

Nevertheless, many employers continue to  take swearing very seriously. Look no further than the infamous former Yahoo CEO who was terminated by the board of directors after letting rip on employees. In one incident the former CEO told employees she would “drop kick them to f***ing Mars” if they were found to be leaking any information to the public. Goldman Sachs went further, and even banned swear words censored with asterisks!

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.


Top Lighter Side



  • by Bernie Althofer 5/04/2012 2:59:29 PM

    It might be the case for organisations to consider what has been or is been said about the use of obscene language in the policing environment. Connor :2000 indicates 'that police deviance is a much broader term than corruption. It includes all activities which are inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics (from a societal standpoint or even from the police standpoint).'

    Connor provides four definitions to be considered. These are:

    Deviance - behaviour inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics
    Corruption - forbidden acts involving misuse of office for gain
    Misconduct - wrongdoing violations of departmental procedures
    Favouritism - unfair "breaks' to friends or relatives (nepotism)
    Connor 2000 discussed police and police profanity and indicated that 'there are many reasons why a police officer would use obscene and profane language.'

    Connor acknowledges that 'effective use of verbal communication is one of the skills expected in police work', and whilst there is 'specific condemnation of the use of certain words that are "patently offensive", there is no such 'mechanism for determining what's offensive with interpersonal communication'.

    Connor indicates a typology exists with words having 'religious connotations, indicated excretory functions or connected with sexual functions'. The use of words associated with such classifications or typology by police officers is 'purposive and not a loss of control or catharsis' and is done to:

    gain the attention of citizens who may be less than cooperative;
    discredit somebody or something, like an alibi defense;
    establish a dominant-submissive relationship;
    identify with an in-group, the offender or police subculture; and
    to label or degrade an out-group.
    Connor indicates that the 'last is of the most concern, since in may reflect the transition of prejudice to discrimination, especially if racial slurs or epitaphs are involved'.

    It is also important to consider that some of these behaviours can be present in workplace bullying incidents that occur in the public and private sector. It is also important to consider that many organisations now have codes of conduct requiring others to be treated with respect and dignity.

    Whilst it might be true that the use of obscenities is part of everyday language in some workplaces, the casual or flippant intentional use may lead to serious allegations being made. Yes, people do accidently swear from time to time, but that does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable.

    I think there is a time and a place for foul language, and it is not in the workplace. If people want to swear in private, then that might be another issue to consider. There have been discussions about this topic in other forums and it has been suggested that those who need to swear in the workplace (or elsewhere) have a limited vocabulary. I have heard people swear so much that if they left out the swear words, they would have said nothing at all.