What’s the go when it comes to profanities in your workplace? Is a sprinkle of colourful language okay when you’ve got a point to make? Or do you have a strict policy in place, with swear jars for repeat offenders, even if it’s you?
Author of In Praise of Profanity, Michael Adams suggests that it’s a modern problem brought about by changing moral codes. In an interview with the ABC, he says there are ‘just some moments in life where you reach a point of existential frustration, everything has gone wrong at once, and you search around for other words, but none will suit the occasion quite as well as a nice profanity’.
There are many moments in business when can happen, and some of us may vent our frustrations by letting rip. If you have a tight group of co-workers, it might be the case that that swearing within reason and context is accepted. In an open plan workplace, where the audience might extend beyond close colleagues, then this might not be the case. And that could lead to offence taken, and perhaps even distress and disengagement.
A CASE STUDY
A case in point is Mark Baldwin v Scientific Management Associate, which was brought before the Fair Work Commission. It was alleged that Baldwin had used crude and profane language in a threatening manner towards his manager. Baldwin’s manager had then become fearful for his own safety. The Fair Work Commission determined that Baldwin had been fairly dismissed, and the termination was upheld.
This ruling highlights the qualitative difference between swearing in general terms verses swearing when it is specifically directed at someone - becoming highly personalised.
SET THE TONE
Employees look to their leaders for direction, and follow your cues. So, when you choose your words as a leader, choose them well. Set the tone and create a culture that is aligned with best practice. And get it right every time.
Hats off to you if you consider this important and have implemented a code of conduct covering profanities in your workplace. Enforce it consistently and lead by example – set the tone yourself.
If you have no policy, it could be time to consider one. Let’s be frank: it’s only worth implementing a policy if you agree that swearing is not condoned. Good policies take time and effort to develop. And they only have value if you have a ‘follow me’ attitude. Without this, you can expect your employees to be dubious about your intentions - and the Fair Work Commission too.
If an employee’s language is offensive and/or has the potential to offend or cause harm to others - it’s your obligation as the employer to step in, policy or no. To ignore it is to condone it, and that could lead to allegations of bullying.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
If the proverbial has hit the fan and you’re dealing with an incident, you’re wise to consider all the circumstances. Context is key. If the incident is serious, talk to the employee. Gather all the facts and take time to consider the circumstances, before drawing any conclusions.
Keep front of mind that modern workplaces are generally robust. The use of profanities - in general terms and in certain industries - is not uncommon. Consideration should always be given to the context of the discussion, as well as industry culture.
As an employer, it’s your job to understand these nuances. Some situations - especially the serious ones - should never be overlooked, while others may be collectively acknowledged as contextual.
Determine what’s acceptable for your workplace - then go on to create a pleasant environment for all, by leading with the behaviours you want to be contagious.