Swearing at work: Does it justify disciplinary action?

An abusive slur or an expression of the English language?

Swearing at work: Does it justify disciplinary action?

Profanities have long been an issue of debate, with some people labelling them vulgar whilst others believe it to be an alternative expression of the English language.

And whilst we shouldn’t judge what people get up to in their personal lives, when it comes to conduct in the workplace we all have to abide by distinct rules. 

So, when does cursing in the office actually justify some disciplinary action? We caught up with Maria Gergin, senior associate at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP and speaker at our Employment Law Masterclass, to  uncover the legal stance on the controversial topic.          

“In my opinion, in most workplaces, swearing under your breath, as most employees do at some point, likely wouldn’t justify disciplinary action,” prefaced Gergin.

“However, most employers will have policies regarding workplace harassment and workplace violence embedded within their workplace policies and codes of conduct. These policies should set out the ‘dos and don’ts’ in terms of how workers should interact in the office. In Ontario, for instance, the workplace harassment definition is very broad - "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome”. And that could technically include swearing in the workplace, if the swearing is directed at another employee.”

The main aspect HR should consider when deciding whether a rogue swear world deserves to be swiftly punished is whether or not the profanity was actually directed at a fellow employee or manager. If it is, Gergin tells us, it would probably justify disciplinary action.

“This could take the form of a warning letter or perhaps a meeting to review policies, or even an investigation into the conduct,” she told HRD Canada.

“At the end of the day, employers should have clear workplace harassment and violence policies in place, and have an ongoing obligation to train employees under these policies.

“At the very least, if other employees in the workplace are bringing a colleague’s conduct to their attention the employer should remind the employee of his or her obligations under its policies and provide additional training if needed. An employee who continues to use foul language, especially towards others, despite being reminded of the employer’s policies and expectations likely justifies disciplinary recourse on the employer’s part.”

To hear more on the hottest employment law issues, make sure you sign up to our upcoming Employment Law Masterclass in Toronto.




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