Swearing at work: when is disciplinary action justified?

by Chloe Taylor20 Jan 2015
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. 


  • by Michael 20/01/2015 11:45:24 AM

    If context is a determining factor when managing, nothing will be managed as "context" will cover a host of sins.

  • by Kathryn Dent 20/01/2015 12:45:37 PM

    It's an interesting debate that I've had cause to engage in with clients particularly during training sessions where this issue is commonly addressed and is a fertile source of discussion. While I can appreciate the difference between directing swearing at a person and simply swearing at an inanimate object the latter may still impact on the organisation in a number of ways eg does it create a hostile environment with a risk to safety (granted it may not be bullying)? does it reflect an organisation's professionalism and culture? (think about those third parties who may overhear the swearing - third parties which may include clients). In addition to policies and as a reinforcement of them, I recommend covering these expectations which are behavioural, in any induction and/or ongoing workplace training.

  • by Bernie Althofer 21/12/2015 11:41:01 AM

    I have responded in a number of other discussion groups about this topic. It does appear that the use of obscene, indecent, profane and offensive language is on the increase in some areas, although that does not mean it should be excused. In terms of context, it is imporant in my view to consider the target to whom the language is being directed, even if it is an inanimate object.

    It is suggested that bullying involves deviance. Individual perceptions of deviant behaviour may be formed by various media portrayals of antisocial, deviant and destructive behaviours manifested through assaults, rapes, mass murders, domestic violence, alcohol related violence and graffiti. Ermann and Lundman (2002:3) suggest that these common images rarely include organisational actors e.g. the bullies.

    Deviant behaviour can result in creativity, innovation, problem solving, and negative deviant behaviour can occur in any type of organisation, from corporations, to public and private sector, from community groups and not for profit organisations.

    However there is a downside to deviant behaviour. Despite public perceptions mentioned previously, some of the better examples that demonstrate the downside in public sector organisations come from policing environments. There have been extensive Commissions of Inquiries or Reviews into allegations of police corruption in a variety of policing agencies on a State, National and International level.

    The lessons learned from studies into police corruption are important when considering how workplace bullying kills professional culture. The findings from these Inquiries or Reviews should be compulsory reading by managers in the public and private sector organisations. In some areas, the discussion about workplace bullying is moving away from the traditional health and safety environment to broader social issues, including corruption.

    These discussions are important for auditors (along with executives) to come to terms with.

    For example, Connor: 2002 indicates that 'police work by its very nature involves the slippery slope (the potential for gradual deterioration of socio-moral inhibitions and perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct)'.

    Connor also 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)

    In terms of workplace bullying, all these definitions outlined by Connor come into play at various stages. Victims of workplace bullying may have raised issues alleging non compliance or unlawful activities that if proven, would result in action being taken against another person or persons.

    Whilst the issue of police violence and brutality has been identified in various Commissions of Inquiry (Fitzgerald, Rampart, President's Commission 1967) Connor 2000 indicates that brutality 'has been defined as excessive force, name calling, sarcasm, ridicule, and disrespect'. Connor refers to Kania and Mackey's (1977) widely regarded definition that indicates, "brutality is excessive violence, to an extreme degree, which does not support a legitimate police function".

    Some workplace bullying behaviours contain elements that could be perceived as violent or even brutal, and certainly in some cases, even a breach of an organisational Code of Conduct. Societal changes have seen many changes in relation to communication practices, and whilst individuals may have ‘temporary flashes’ or ‘outbursts’ when obscenities or profanities are used, it is important to remember the ideology regarding the misuse of such words.

    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 does seem that some managers and workers use obscenities as 'stand alone' words i.e. not connected as part of that typology identified by Connor. The real risk for individuals and organisations, and is perhaps the issue that needs to be the topic of open and transparent discussions, is when obscenities are coupled as part of the typology identified above. It might be the case that when the language is used in such 'couplings', then the employee may have breached a Code of Conduct, or other policies regarding standards of behaviour or conduct. Being dismissive of the use of such language allows individuals to adopt 'risky communication' that becomes the organisational standard. For organisations, there needs to be some guidelines establishing what is and what is not acceptable. For individuals, they need to be able to discuss and share and reach agreement about what language is acceptable in the workplace, and importantly, the consequences for crossing the line.

Most Read