Commentary: Is swearing in the office ever okay?
We’ve all done it and our bosses have too – utter a swear word when things get tense. But when does it become unprofessional? HR consultant, Carys Chan draws the boundaries.
BRISBANE: Recently, a video emerged on various social media platforms showing Thai AirAsia CEO Tassapon Bijleveld telling a female employee to “shut” her mouth during a virtual townhall and repeatedly using profanity when addressing her.
In the video, the CEO also seemed to have lost his temper and repeatedly said, “What’s your f******* question? Come on, don’t talk a lot.”
Against a sea of public outrage, AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes apologised for the incident and called Bijleveld’s behaviour an “appalling” slip-up.
But Fernandes was also quick to highlight how Bijleveld had come under tremendous pressures keeping the company afloat as the aviation industry continues to struggle and the edited video did not reflect the full context of the conversation.
A respectful workplace demands that no one should be hurling vulgarities at each other, not least of all a superior at a subordinate.
Bijleveld’s behaviour was indeed appalling so it was useful for AirAsia to clarify they will ensure it doesn’t happen again.
But the incident raises several questions: To what extent can people swear at tense situations that crop up in a regular work cycle? Should people be given license to do so?
LETTING OFF STEAM
On the one hand, swearing might be seen as a natural response. When stress and frustrations build up at work, people do tend to curse to let off some steam.
Indeed, studies have also shown that swearing at work, when combined with humour, can be a stress-release mechanism. The actual act of expressing swear words can help to release pent-up emotions and frustration.
Using swear words at work can be controversial but there are studies suggesting they can help new employees build rapport and develop friendships with their co-workers.
Perhaps that’s a generational phenomenon when culture and norms come into play. Multiple polls and surveys also show that millennials and Gen Zs have admitted to swearing at work and are more tolerant of the use of curse words to express emotions than their older colleagues.
They may be common language understood by most which help new employees to settle into their work teams more easily.
Having worked in various organisations, most of us are no strangers to organisational cultures that welcome swearing, and those that frown upon such behaviour.
Research has shown that workers in sales, manufacturing, construction and IT are used to swearing where work situations tend to be more informal and social, more so than workers in other industries.
TRICKY SITUATIONS AND UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
Still, swearing has a huge slippery slope. As swearing becomes more widely used and acceptable in the workplace, it also becomes more difficult to differentiate appropriate and inappropriate swear words.
Some words may be more abusive and offensive than others, and not everyone within the organisation will see eye-to-eye on what these words are.
There is also the question of context – when a swear word is used to describe how someone is feeling (“I am f****** tired”) versus using it to convey frustration towards a person (“why can’t you get this f****** right?”). This distinction makes all the difference, because the latter can be seen as not only unprofessional, but also aggressive and abusive.
What’s clear however is that the interpretation of acceptable norms remains tricky. CEOs, business unit leaders and even managers set the tone in how this works. But once swearing becomes part and parcel of an organisation’s culture, disciplining an employee for swearing becomes particularly difficult.
A workplace culture that views swearing as an accepted standard of behaviour will find it challenging to navigate grey areas. Implementing a workplace policy is near impossible, as policing the use of swear words would have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
This potentially opens a can of worms as some employees may feel hurt or offended, even if the other party did not intend to be abusive and was merely swearing to get their point across.
Swearing directed at service workers can also intensify conflict and increase people’s levels of distress, as was the case in a 2011 study of nurses who found it hard to cope with aggressive patients.
Leaders may also find themselves in tricky situations where they are expected to regulate the use of swear words to protect the welfare of employees less comfortable with swearing.
Could leaders come under pressure to take disciplinary action or even fire someone for cursing? In Singapore, swearing can constitute abusive and insulting behaviour under the Protection from Harassment Act, HJM Asia Law and Co managing partner Caroline Berube had highlighted in Human Resources Director, though employers would still have to build a clear case for termination based on swearing.
SWEAR AT YOUR OWN RISK
The situation becomes even more complex when leaders who should set the standard for the organisation swear.
Studies show that leaders who swear at work are not only seen as less credible and incompetent, swearing also damages their reputation with female bosses suffering reputational losses more than their male counterparts.
In a survey conducted by CareerBuilder in 2012, 81 per cent surveyed believe that the use of swear words brings an employee’s professionalism into question. They also associated swearing with a lack of control (71 per cent), lack of maturity (68 per cent) and lower intelligence (54 per cent).
In other words, swearing in the workplace may inadvertently tarnish a person’s reputation, affect their employment opportunities, or hurt their career.
There are clear red line words that should never be part of day-to-day communication in an office – hate speech, racist or sexist language can never be justified.
But even the more “harmless” words can be considered unnecessary, even impolite.
There are other ways to convey an important message or the gravity of a situation without resorting to using swear words.
Even if you have staff who are tolerant, in a professional setting such as the office, professional behaviour should be something we can take for granted – this includes the way you speak and the words you use.
To reduce swearing at work, senior executives and managers should tackle infractions and encourage people to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. One subtle way to do this is to enlist the help of all workers.
Bosses could allow people in the workplace to keep score and penalise each other lightly if anyone who swears contributes S$2. The money collected could be used as a sort of office fundraiser.
They could also encourage employees to exercise creativity to think of alternatives to swear words – for example, instead of saying “What the f***?”, try “What an interesting idea!”.
The use of foul language can severely impact an organisation’s bottom-line and culture. Everyone has a part to play to make the organisation a psychologically safe place to work in. Maintaining that positive organisational culture could start by first cleaning up the language used.
Carys Chan is Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at Griffith University’s School of Applied Psychology and Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing.