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How's the Profanity Quotient in Your Office?

Profanity at work can be a sticky topic, but only when there’s a mismatch between our comfort level and that of our colleagues.

Nearly everyone has heard a co-worker (usually a boss) blast off when he or she is riled up about something. Most of the time, that’s all there is to it.

We usually don’t write “swearing policies” because the circumstances under which people curse at work vary so much and have such hierarchical overtones. I know from my own experience that many CEOs and other executives get away with stronger language when they’re overheated than most employees would dare to use.

Boss Sets the Tone

The boss sets the profanity tone for the group, so everyone knows where the organizational curse line lies. Still, it can be hard to know what’s appropriate in the cursing arena when a diverse group of workmates congregates. I’ve worked with people around whom I wouldn’t use any oath stronger than “My heavens!” and believe me, it took all my willpower to keep my expressions that mild in an otherwise rough-and-ready environment. One of my male colleagues asked me, “I notice you use perfect manners around the ladies in accounting, so why do you curse in inventory meetings?” His question made me think.

I don’t mind salty language flying around me but I’d never devolve into full-out cursing in the presence of the nice women in accounting.

Cursing is a cultural issue at work, just like dress code and other aspects of jobs and companies that can be hard to gauge until you’re actually working there.

Swearing seems to have a generational component as well. I’ve spent time in offices and restaurants staffed mostly by under-25s where the use of the long form of “mofo” is as casual as my use of the word “yes.” The problem arises when staff members have different tolerances for strong language. When that difference is hierarchical as well, things can get tense. One young man told me, “I’m not one to curse a ton, but it’s weird that my boss can say whatever he wants while, if I say anything, I get the sideways look.”

Start a Conversation

So, how to deal? I suggest starting a conversation in your workplace about the culture in general, communication a bit more specifically, and profanity as a subtopic worth digging into. If you don’t have conversations already in progress about interpersonal glitches and strategies, office dynamics, and the mood and tenor of your team, you should start right away. It’s ridiculous to pretend that the work environment and morale aren’t worthy of observation or discussion. Your team’s cohesion is the glue that allows anything to get done at all.

You could designate your office an A-, B-, or C-level swearing zone, where “A” is the perfect freedom from any and all types of profanity and “B” is the midlevel where many workplaces lie. For level “C,” of course, you can use your imagination.

If you start the conversation, you’ll be able to figure out where sensitivities lie and talk about what feels O.K. to everyone and what doesn’t.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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