Admit it: Some situations at work just make you want to curse. You probably hold back, of course. Maybe you utter something graphic under your breath once you’re alone or in the presence of a close office buddy. Or perhaps you’re just someone who never, ever swears under any circumstances.
But could swearing ever have a place in the workplace? So many paradigms for what constitutes reasonable and professional behavior have shifted in the past few years that it’s worth exploring the question, especially considering the fact cultures are more casual nowadays. HR experts say no, but there are some contextual caveats.
One of the issues with using swear words at work is that people have different ideas of which language they deem acceptable, which can lead to friction.
“Generally, swearing should be left out of professional settings. Some expletive terms that seem mild to you can disturb your colleagues, paving the way for a toxic work environment,” says Michael Moran HR professional, career expert, and the founder of Green Lion Search, a staffing consultancy firm.
Things like racist or sexist slurs are never justified, but even other types of swear words that seem innocuous at first can encourage a culture to become toxic.
“A swearing culture can quickly devolve into an abusive one; normalizing the use of expletives in the workplace can result in some people engaging in outright verbal abuse, harassment, and discrimination,” says Moran.
And it’s easy to overdo it. “You might have thought that you made a humorous remark that everybody laughed at, but some of them might think you crossed the line. Most people don’t speak up about it because they don’t want to be the one to break the peace,” according to Sai Blackbyrn, career coach, CEO of Coach Foundation, and owner of CoachesSupport Group, the largest group for coaches on Linkedin.
While there are many arguments for avoiding the use of expletives at work, you may be surprised to find out there are some benefits to swearing in a professional setting too. Both Moran and Blackbyrn recommend avoiding swear words altogether while on the clock, but they shared some interesting insights about the upside of doing it.
“Surprisingly, swearing can help build camaraderie and team spirit, such as when team members use specific swear words only inside the team and never swear to or in front of members of another team,” says Moran.
“The occasional swear word can also be a stress reliever, a means through which one can express disappointment or shock and strengthen social bonds with colleagues. Strangely, swearing can also help you pass your point across, especially when you feel like your conversation with someone or a group of people is hitting a wall. They might be more inclined to listen to you or give you the attention you need at that particular time if you use an expletive.”
“By making conversations more personal, swearing helps deepen relationships and build trust. When coworkers swear, they can effectively communicate their feelings and opinions, which helps avoid miscommunication,” adds Blackbyrn.
It might be rarer, but there are also cultures and leaders that fully embrace curse words. Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, an organization that runs team-building events for clients like Apple, Amazon, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Netflix and Chipotle, is one of them.
The company started as a small, renegade museum tour company called Museum Hack with the slogan “Museums Are F*****g Awesome.” Tour guides would swear while giving tours and it was very much part of the brand. The message resonated with customers and helped the business grow. Now that it has evolved into corporate events, that sassy spirit has lived on and evolved.
“For example, we named one of our virtual team building events, ‘Just a Damn Fun Event’ and had feedback from numerous clients that were sensitive to it. We updated the name to ‘Just a Darn Fun Event’ instead,” shares Alexis.
“However, the spirit of cursing still lives on internally. It’s totally okay for a team member to share kudos for a colleague like, ‘Wow, Kris did f*****g awesome hosting Online Office Games last night.’ In fact, one of our company core values is even ‘Get sh*t done [right],’ where the casual term helps emphasize its importance.”
Regardless of where you fall on the “swearing at work” spectrum, know that there are dos and don’ts of doing it right if you’re going to do it. For starters, Alexis says it’s critical to swear with each other and not at each other:
“It’s totally okay to use casual language at TeamBuilding, but not okay to use it to target people. ‘I am having a sh*tty day’ would be totally okay, but ‘You are being really sh*tty’ would not. This nuance is important since mutual respect in the workplace is fundamental to healthy company culture.”
“Do not swear in front of customers. Even if it is not directed towards them, it will leave a wrong impression of both your company and yourself,” adds Blackbyrn. “Do maintain a boundary. There are some things that your coworkers are probably sensitive about, like a missed promotion. Keep yourself in check at all times and avoid swearing about these topics.”
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