Swearing in the Office: It’s the Workplace’s Four-Letter Word Dilemma

© giz - Fotolia.com
© giz - Fotolia.com

Workplace taboos have changed dramatically over the years.

In the Mad Men era, the idea of working from home was laughable. And forget gender equity or open office plans. You were toast if you showed up a few minutes late or tried to speak openly in a meeting, but drinking and smoking while working were pervasive.

Society has changed and so, of course, has work.

Many offices now offer flexible work arrangements — that is, unless you’re Yahoo. We champion the idea of open communications, and encourage workers to be themselves. We want them to take their unique strengths and put them to work, not all try to be the same cookie-cutter, 9–5 worker.

But as with any radical change, this new work environment has encountered its fair share of issues. The line between what’s work-appropriate and what’s not has become increasingly blurry, and this affects a wide range of matters, from the most trivial to the most consequential.

One issue that most managers should keep in mind is quite basic: swearing in the office. As with all great debates, there are two sides to this coin.

1. Finding your own voice

We all want a productive workforce. Employees who put in the elbow grease are what fuel a company’s success.

But pushing your workers towards ever-greater productivity can start to have a serious impact on employee happiness and engagement. We all know that employees don’t work hard just for the financial rewards. The hardest workers also tend to be the happiest, and one way to help your employees become happier is to create an open working environment.

When employees feel comfortable where they work, they work smarter, harder, and faster. Part of that comfort level is being who they are, and for many people, that’s having a salty mouth.

Being able to mutter an obscenity when a sale falls through, or pepper sentences with phrases that would make your grandmother blush, are easy ways to let off steam and allow employees to feel like themselves. With great comfort comes great work.

2. Be you — but maybe a little less so

Comfort is essential, and that’s why swearing in the office isn’t always such a good idea.

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Good working environments are also diverse; they bring in people from all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and interests. What’s perfectly reasonable language to one person can leave another running for the hills.

It’s HR 101 that no one should feel threatened in her work environment, and bad language makes plenty of people feel uneasy. You never want to be in a position where you’re losing valuable team-members over a couple of “harmless” curses.

Ultimately, it’s YOUR culture

So the central question is this: to swear or not to swear?

The bottom line on this one is that there’s no universal answer (sorry!). It’s all about your company’s culture.

If you’re a traditional white-collared firm, you can stick to the “gosh-darn-its.” If you’re in a much more laidback environment, it’s okay to let a few F-bombs fly now and again. It’s all about the dynamics of the people actually working for and with you.

One last thing to keep in mind: no matter what your take on swearing, it’s never okay to direct your curses at someone else.

Fate, the universe, the hockey gods? Sure. But putting a co-worker down is never acceptable, no matter how open your office is.