Swearing at work: when is disciplinary action justified?

When it comes to managing workplace swearing, it's all about the context according to Alecia Thompson, solictor at PCC Lawyers.

Definitions of inappropriate language at work can vary depending on context and workplace.

In some workplaces, swearing might be commonplace as employees are subjected to stressful situations. In others, workers who use expletives may be frowned upon or even penalised. 

But not every occasion of bad language should warrant the intervention of an employer or manager.

“The context, the type of swearing and the audience are all important factors in determining whether swearing in the workplace is inappropriate,” said Alecia Thompson, solicitor at PCC Lawyers. “An important consideration which must be made in the context of considering swearing at work is whether there are any workplace policies that regulate such language.”

“An important distinction in many cases is whether the swearing is used whilst in a general discussion to describe an inanimate object, for example, a malfunctioning printer, or whether it is specifically directed at a particular person,” she said.

Thompson pointed out a 2014 case which highlighted the importance of this distinction.

In ‘Mark Baldwin v Scientific Management Associates’ an employee who swore at his manager was found not to have been unfairly dismissed. Baldwin had used crude and profane language in a threatening manner and had caused his manager to become fearful for his own safety.

There is… a qualitative difference between swearing in the workforce per se and swearing directed to one’s manager [or to another employee] which is not only offensive but highly personalised,” the Fair Work Commission ruled.

Things to consider when managing workplace swearing

Thompson suggested that employers who find that swearing is an issue take the following into consideration:
  • If there is a ‘no swearing’ policy, enforce it consistently against all employees who swear in the workplace. If there is no policy and swearing is not condoned in the workplace, consider implementing a ‘no swearing’ policy.
  • There is a difference between swearing during general discussion and launching into a tirade of swear words against an employee
  • Consider the culture you wish to cultivate. Employees will obviously take cues from their supervisors. If there is a manager swearing up a storm regularly, employees will therefore believe it is ok for them to swear as well.
  • Consider the audience to whom the swearing is being directed. Is the audience likely to be offended? Will the swearing damage the reputation of the business?
  • How serious or offensive are the swear words that were used? If the words were only mildly offensive, consider giving the employee a stern warning

    Employers should not disregard bad language, and should use their discretion to decide if it has the potential to offend or cause harm to other employees. If this is the case and incidents remain ignored, employers could appear to be condoning behaviour which could amount to bullying, Thompson warns.
Having a sensible policy in place can provide guidance to employees as to what is deemed inappropriate and the standards that are expected. It can also help to make employees feel that they are not too restricted on what they can say.
“A policy that is correctly implemented and applied can also provide employers with a source of authority should disciplinary action against an employee be necessary,” Thompson said. 

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