Swearing at work: help or hindrance?

By James Melik
Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service

Image caption,
Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is well-known for using strong language in his kitchen

People at work who turn the air blue with profane language could well be venting their frustration, but they might also be offending co-workers.

Such behaviour could lead to the offender being reprimanded for harassment or bullying.

But there is a school of thought which believes that swearing can be positive and that it can bind together a community of workers.

"It is not the best thing to do, not a nice thing to do, but it can be a great stress relief," says professor Yehuda Baruch at the University of East Anglia.

According to American Jim O'Connor however, who wrote a book called Cuss Control, people who continually swear "probably have a pretty nasty attitude."

"What they do is create an uncomfortable or a hostile environment for people who don't want to hear that sort of language," he says.

He agrees swearing can be a stress relief for the person who is doing it, but maintains that it can also cause stress for those who have to hear it.

He believes a lot of people are offended by swearing, but they feel uncomfortable saying anything about it.

"It's an odd custom that we have, allowing people to use profanity when it's bothering us," he asserts.

Cultural limits

Dr Baruch did research into the swearing habits of factory workers, and says swearing can create benefits for some employees.

"People swear when they are really upset and swearing helps them release their frustration," he says.

He maintains this can be helpful at times.

"If you want to know who will come back to your workplace with a gun and shoot you, it will not be the swearers, because they have already aired their frustration," he says.

Profanity does seem to be more prevalent in English speaking cultures.

"Our language used to be very formal and very structured, now it is very casual," Mr O'Connor says, "The way we dress, the way we communicate with superiors, casual sex, casual everything."

"It is lazy language, it is easy to swear," he laments.

Dr Baruch's research in a mail order house found a culture whereby workers did not become a part of the team unless they used swear words.

But even then, they knew when to swear and when not to swear.

"The male workers were swearing all the time, but they stopped when a lady was present," Dr Baruch says.

Seeking solutions

Some organisations have taken specific action to cut down on the behaviour, or perceived behaviour, of their workforce.

Image caption,
There are projects to improve the image of construction workers

Long lampooned in popular myth, the stereotype of a construction worker is one of builders shouting out lewd remarks and wolf whistles as a pretty girl walks past.

The Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) was created in 1997 with the aim of improving the image of the construction industry and since its launch, over 45,000 UK construction sites have registered.

According to director Nigel Marks, the scheme believes strongly that swearing in the workplace is both unnecessary and unacceptable, and all those contractors and sites who sign up agree to abide by the Code of Considerate Practice.

One section of that code specifically states that "lewd or derogatory behaviour and language should not be tolerated, under threat of severe disciplinary action."

Many of the projects registered with CCS involve working within people's homes, in or near schools, or, in close proximity to the public.

"Swearing normally indicates that an individual is incapable of expressing himself or herself adequately," Mr Marks says.

"In those that register with the scheme, we are seeing a more professional workforce that recognises the need for self respect, respect for others and a pride in the industry of which they are a part," he adds.

Costly mistake

Abusive language in the workplace can give rise to claims if it is sufficiently serious to justify the employee resigning and claiming constructive dismissal.

In a landmark court case in 2003, a senior worker at the London investment banking firm Cantor Fitzgerald, won £1m for constructive dismissal.

Although the use of such language was common in the workplace, the court found the relationship of trust and confidence between the worker and his employer had broken down because of the employer's behaviour.

Cantor Fitzgerald argued there was a culture of robust communications and bad language and that it came with the job.

Mr Justice Newman said language used was wholly incompatible with 'the continuance of a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence".

An acceptable level?

Mr O'Connor says that in a workplace the management sets the pace and if they state there should not be any swearing in the office, people tend to follow it.

"They might let slip now and then but if it's a policy, it's a policy," he says.

Dr Baruch says employees and management should employ common sense and not turn to regulations.

"Let it be occasionally, make sure it is not abusive or offending people, otherwise it is OK, this is part of life," he says.

Swearing in the workplace is usually provoked by frustration, anger, impatience or when things go wrong.

There is stress, there is conflict, and there is disagreement.

"In the old days when you couldn't swear, you controlled your emotions and worked things out in a mature way," Mr O'Connor recalls.

"Now we just fly off the handle. Why was it possible to sort things out without swearing 40 years ago and not today?"

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