Swearing at work – when is disciplinary action justified?

Employees could be terminated for swearing in the office, though a leading lawyer says the case would need to be black and white for it to succeed.

Swearing at work – when is disciplinary action justified?
Employees could be terminated for swearing in the office, though a bullet-proof, black and white case for termination would first need to be established.

HJM Asia Law & Co managing partner Caroline Berube told HRD Singapore swearing could constitute abusive and insulting behavior under the Protection from Harassment Act 2014, though it depends on how it is defined.

“It depends on how you define what is abusive and insulting under the Act. Swearing could be deemed insulting if you apply the law strictly,” Berube said.

The Protection from Harassment Act 2014 is designed to protect Singaporeans from harassment and related anti-social behaviors, including in the workplace.

This extends to acts committed in the real world as well as online and extends to threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviour or communication.

Berube said swearing could be deemed insulting misconduct by an employer, but that it would very much depend on the context and the industry in question. 

“For example, on a construction site swearing might be more common than in a law firm; the court would need to take into account this industry and context.”

The law stipulates quite strong penalties, including hefty fines and jail time for repeat offenders, though it’s likely these are reserved for sexual harassment.

“So in the case where a HR manager happens to hear an employee swearing, it would be more of a case where a soft warning would be appropriate,” she said.

However, Berube said employers may be able to build a case for termination based on swearing, depending on the employee’s pattern of behaviour.

“If an employee swears twice in two years for example, of course that would be unlikely to be a cause for termination, but if the behaviour is recurring and disrupting other people in the workplace, that could be a cause,” she said.

However, Berube said employers would need to ensure they followed procedure rather than having any knee-jerk response to incidences of swearing.

“One warning would not be sufficient; it would likely need to be a few warnings done in writing, plus a meeting with the employee to lead to termination.”

Berube said it was likely that the swearing would also have be directed at someone specifically, potentially aggressively, to bring the case out of the ‘grey zone’ into a black and white incidence where termination could be applicable.

“It would really depend on the situation; it’s not black and white,” she said.

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