Profanity in the Workplace

This can be a tricky subject as company cultures vary along with expectations of their employees’ behavior. At times work can become stressful, demanding and even frustrating. Depending on your workplace culture, letting certain foul language slip might be tolerated or even expected. However, at what point should particular language spoken by an employee be considered inappropriate and offensive? What action should managers take?

Read further for tips on distinguishing and handling profanity at work:

Profanity policies and their retributions.

Some workplaces will not tolerate profanity under any circumstances. It can be a difficult challenge to define what is offensive and what is not because in modern society, the concept is much more subjective than it has been in the past. It is important to take into consideration your company’s culture and how your employees interact with each other. When creating a policy for your company, be sure to clearly define offensive language, including racial slurs as well as sexual slang. Ensure all employees are aware of what disciplinary actions can be taken if their language becomes abusive or offensive to colleagues.

If profanity is used, the intention and context of the language used can matter more than the words themselves. Researchers Yehuda and Stuart Jenkins performed a study that found “when used in a non-abusive manner, swearing [in the workplace] enables the development of personal relationships among coworkers.” They also found that employees might use foul language among each other to alleviate stress. This type of behavior will depend on your companies culture. Most employees may use profanity at work while in private, but when it is used too often and directed towards other employees with malice, you may have to take disciplinary action. 

Management’s role.

Supervisors and management have the responsibility to take disciplinary action when inappropriate behavior arises or when profanity becomes offensive to other staff members. If your staff engages in conversation that includes inappropriate or profane language, try to avoid engaging ine3 the conversation.  Make it clear to staff what the disciplinary actions will be and always enforce the rules. Being too lax on enforcing policy could allow isolated occurrences of profanity to cross the line to abusive or harassing behavior. Your first priority is to maintain a safe environment for yourself and your employees. If you need to take disciplinary action be sure you are holding everyone accountable to the same standards. 

This issue can be boiled down to the message that employees are sending at work when using profanity. Are the words being used at work attracting positive engagement, or are they being used in a threatening manner? It’s important to have a well-defined profanity policy in place to best ensure the safety of your workplace. It is crucial that employees understand the disciplinary actions that will be taken when their language crosses the line and becomes harassment.