Human Resources: Restoring Respect

Curse words, “swear” words, whatever you call them, the use of foul language is definitely on the increase. Words once thought to be unspeakable now make a regular appearance in music, videos, and television. Some people feel that they need to use such language to create emphasis or to gain attention. But not everyone feels comfortable when foul language is used in their presence. When it is used in movies or on music videos, you can choose not to expose yourself to it. But what do business owners do when foul language enters the workplace?

According to a survey of 2,520 executives by the, foul language is the worst breach of all office manners. Nearly 40% of the managers surveyed who have fired employees for violating office etiquette standards cited cursing as the reason for the termination.

Casting Stones

Few among us live in a glass house on this one. When pressure rises and deadlines loom, it’s easy to see how an occasional outburst can occur. But when everyday conversation is peppered with this kind of language, it is unprofessional and even risky. If it is used on a regular basis, there is risk of offending an employee or a customer. Some will find it a violation of their personal beliefs and, therefore, very upsetting. Employees can find it intolerable and may feel it creates a hostile work environment. Some may feel it is harassment when used in their presence.

Amazingly, some managers bring it into the workplace by using it themselves. To be a leader in business you must gain and keep the respect of your followers. There’s no quicker way to lose that respect than to use profanity. Remember, as the owner or manager, you set the tone. If you use profanity, you can be sure it will become commonplace in your department or company. If you tolerate cursing among your staff, soon they’ll be using it in front of your customers.

Swearing has a negative effect on your reputation and takes away from your professionalism. It doesn’t earn you respect or admiration from your peers. It doesn’t accomplish anything. There is a commonly held misconception that the tougher the language one uses in business, the tougher and more in control one appears. Actually, the opposite is true. Swearing indicates you have little control and is a sign of hostility. It will actually take away from the message you are trying to communicate.

Cursing can easily be misinterpreted in the workplace. Then things can get ugly rather quickly. Using curse words that have sexual undertones have sometimes resulted in nasty sexual harassment suits. Cursing at work when it is related to a confrontation with another employee gets uglier even faster. When co-workers get into an angry swearing match at work, it can lead to physical contact. Then one or both of the employees usually get disciplined or terminated.

Appropriate Response

I recommend two actions to control the use of foul language in your business. First, take control of your own behavior if that is needed. You need to set the example by recognizing that it will be detrimental to your business if you don’t. It must start at the top. Employees watch and listen and copy what their boss does. Some will feel that they should imitate these behaviors to show that they’re part of the team and that they want to fit in with the culture. But this is not the culture that you want in your business.

Here are some tips for controlling your language:

  • Become aware of how others sound when they use itand how you react to it.
  • Recognize that it can be very jarring and create stress.
  • Learn to exercise patience since there is often atendency to use profanity when the pressure is on.
  • Concentrate on using acceptable language that will convey that you are upset about something without resorting to foul language.

Second, include a policy in your employee handbook that addresses the issues of foul language in the workplace. It is up to employers to set the boundaries for professional conduct and harassment prevention, and it is up to supervisors to enforce those policies and model good behavior for employees. The guidelines on language should be made a part of your anti-harassment policy.

For purposes of the policy, define improper language as: “Unwanted, deliberate, and repeated profanity, along with vulgar, insulting, abusive, or crude language.” Make it clear that the use of such language is offensive and can result in complaints of harassment—even sexual harassment. If those complaints arise, they must be handled as expeditiously and thoroughly as harassment is handled. Be very specific in the policy about the steps of the disciplinary process that will be followed, up to and including termination.

Defining Culture

A competent, stable, well led workforce is essential to achieving a competitive advantage and business success. The image of competence that you want to present to your customers can be seriously weakened by the presence of foul language in the workplace. What will your customers think when they are exposed to it? What will they think of your team when they hear it? What will they think of your leadership when they hear it in your presence or, worse yet, hear it from you?

An uncomfortable workplace will also impact the stability of your staff. You are trying to build a team with people from diverse backgrounds. You spend a lot of money on training and teambuilding. The last thing you want is your star employee coming to you and saying that she has to leave because she can’t live with the culture. Retention of key employees is dependent on your business being an employer of choice. That demands an environment where employees want to work.

Leadership is critical to business success. Leaders create a vision of the future and develop and foster a culture that is focused on that vision. That should be a culture of professionalism that understands the value of satisfying the internal customers. It should include the need for mutual respect for each other and make it clear that there is no room for any improper conduct in the workplace. Emphasize that culture at all times and take the steps to eliminate any improper conduct as soon as it occurs.