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Employee Experience

Swearing at Work: Pros & Cons

One Minute Takeaway

  • It’s up to HR to make a policy that works for your culture. There are no laws against swearing at work, but there are pros and cons.
  • Cursing at work can build team culture, motivation and camaraderie.
  • But excessive swearing can create a hostile workforce, legal complaints. 
  • Adopting a respect policy can help set expectations and improve the working environment.

Most people swear all the time—80 times a day by some estimates. Is that good or bad at work? Well, like many perennial HR questions, this one has both yes and no answers. Here’s a brief tour of both sides.

Yes, Let People %$#@!!! At Work 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here is the case for cussing like a sailor at work. 

Believe it or not, there is growing evidence that swearing can actually “alleviate the pain of social distress” (European Journal of Social Psychology), which is science-speak for saying cussing is a way of processing negative emotions or even physical pain. Researchers with way too much time on their hands found that swearing after stubbing your toe can reduce physical pain. 

Swearing at work can also make your argument or point more persuasive; it shows you’ve got a point of view, skin in the game, commitment (Danette Ifert Johnson, Ithaca College). Delivered with the right tone and in the right context, swearing can build team culture and camaraderie. (Fast Company reports that “the most cohesive and productive teams in … manufacturing and IT joke with each other using lots of profanity and trust each other more for it.”)

Finally, there is some evidence that (sit down for this one)… the foul-mouthed among us might have more integrity, emotional intelligence, a bigger vocabulary and higher IQ (Kristin Jay, Timothy Jay, Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).

So, those are the pros.

No, Keep it Classy

Now, let’s get to the cons. 

Cussing at someone at work is not only incredibly tacky, but it could also result in the swearer being fired. It’s one thing to throw out an F-bomb when you knock a full cup of coffee on your stack of TPS reports, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you call Pete in finance a *&%$ for kicking back your expense report. And it’s not just saying the words out loud that’s a con. It’s pretty darn inadvisable to put anything like that in writing, too. 

No states have laws on the books to address swearing at work, but… there is a legal precedent for saying no way to using salty language in the office. A federal jury found an Oregon employer liable for allowing a hostile work environment when a woman complained that her co-worker’s use of God’s name in curse words was deeply offensive to her religious beliefs. And the Department of Labor considers directing “offensive, profane and vulgar language” toward a co-worker a form of violence.

So, Should You Implement a “No Foul Language” Policy?

You might not like the answer but, as we said earlier, “it depends.” Is your company a nonprofit that works with little kids? Yeah, it’s probably best that you have one in place. On the other side of the coin, do you wear flip-flops and shorts to work, look forward to the office’s Free Drinks Fridays, and get to pet an office dog or two on the daily? Chances are pretty solid that not only is cussing okay but trying to force a policy might find you with a “Linda the Language Police” sign taped to your cubicle. 

Instead of drafting a formal policy, it’s best to address situations on a case-by-case basis. If Taylor in IT is swearing because their code is misbehaving, that should probably get a pass. But when an employee spews derogatory language toward a co-worker, that’s when managers and HR need to step in. 

 If you do decide a policy is necessary, a simple blanket statement such as, “We treat our customers and co-workers with respect at all times, and this includes the language we use. Profanity is not appropriate in our workplace.” could perfectly fit the bill. 

Sure, some of your employees may sprain their ocular muscles rolling their eyes when asked to clean up their language. But defining expectations around respect in the workplace will go a long way toward creating a better environment for everyone. 

How Paycor Helps

 Is your culture pro swearing or con? Paycor can help you answer deep questions about how your team thinks and feels about their work, about leadership and about each other, in real time. Paycor Pulse surveys use natural language processing and AI to help leaders gauge employee sentiment and discover the “why behind the what.” Best of all, the insights you get from Paycor Pulse are actionable, so you can use the data to drive positive change.