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I don't think I am the sensitive type.  If people are comfortable enough with me to get into their personal skin and start cussing like a sailor, I generally let it go.  Thanks for trusting me with that profanity-laced monologue about traffic or your ex-spouse.  We're good, as long as the profanity isn't directed at me...

But can I project my tolerance for the conversational F-bomb across the rest of the workforce I support?Entourage H#@* No!!  Away from work, I'd love to throw up weekly clips of Ari Gold from Entourage on this blog, but I'm not HBO.  I'm a HR blogger trying to build an online community, and there's no reason to lose 50% of my potential audience because they block my site at the first sign of a profane YouTube clip.

Some academics at the University of East Anglia (UK) think that makes me less than progressive.  The group recently published a study entitled "Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: when anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable".  The study focused on the use of profanity in the workplace and assessed its implications for managers.  From Yahoo's coverage:

"They assessed that swearing would become more common as traditional taboos are broken down, but the key appeared to be knowing when such language was appropriate and when to turn to blind eye. [sic]

The pair said swearing in front of senior staff or customers should be seriously discouraged or banned, but in other circumstances it helped foster solidarity among employees and express frustration, stress or other feelings.

"Employees use swearing on a continuous basis, but not necessarily in a negative, abusive manner," said Baruch, who works in the university's business school in Norwich.

Banning swear words and reprimanding staff might represent strong leadership, but could remove key links between staff and impact on morale and motivation, he said.

"We hope that this study will serve not only to acknowledge the part that swearing plays in our work and our lives, but also to indicate that leaders sometimes need to 'think differently' and be open to intriguing ideas.

If lawsuits (see words used by Isiah Thomas) have taught us anything, it's that people have dramatically different thresholds regarding what they think is appropriate in the workplace and what they believe constitutes unprofessional behavior.   It's OK to feel comfortable with a co-worker(s) and drop some profane science on them, but do it at your own peril.  If the person hearing it thinks you are a caveman/cavewoman for using that language, you're much more likely to have issues with that person as a result, including an increased probability of taking a lawsuit naming you as a harasser.

Now get your <insert profane reference or clean alternative> back to work. 

Comments

Michael Moore

Kris:

From a liability standpoint, a hostile work environment is measured in part by the mythical reasonable person standard. In other words, what a reasonable person would find offensive in terms of conduct or language. I am continuously amazed in the course of the sexual harassment investigations that I conduct at the divergence in what employees and employers find as acceptable conduct and language in the workplace. There are a considerable number of employees with such prudish dispositions that I find it difficult to believe that they can watch television, read magazines or otherwise function in society while dealing with the barrage of sexually-oriented advertising. On the other extreme is a class of employees whose lewd and lascivious nature might shock even the Marquis de Sade. In the middle is a largely apathetic group that seems to comprise the reasonable person. It is frightening to believe that theses are the same people (prudish, lecherous and apathetic) who sit on juries in harassment law suits. It is very difficult to blend the two extremes without offending one or the other, but an employer needs to balance the two without creating an antiseptic work environment or tolerating a hostile work environment.

Wally Bock

Powerful post, Kris. Bravo.

When I went home on leave after boot camp at Parris Island, I had developed a habit of swearing. My first night home I asked, without noticing it, for someone to "Pass the f***ing butter."

My mother brought me up short by asking me, "Wally, why did you ask for that particular kind of butter."

A few years back I was standing in the back of a meeting room, waiting for my turn to speak. Another hired speaker was at the front of the room. He used a single swear word. You could see some people in the audience visibly stiffen. Later, several audience members could recall only that word from the entire speech.

I've read the study you refer to. The researchers are trying to get at the idea that a workplace where people are comfortable is more likely to be a productive place. Well and good. But they use swearing as an indicator of a comfortable workplace.

That's not so well and good. For one thing, different people react differently to swearing anyplace. My neighbor, Bill, will not buy Bob Sutton's The No-A**hole Rule because he says, "How much sense can he make if he has to use words like that in his title?"

For another, it depends a lot on where your workplace is located. Language that you can get away with in a machine shop in Boston may get you cold stares and a talking-to in an office in Greensboro, North Carolina.

More importantly, the research does not conclude that swearing makes you more productive. That's a product of the media coverage.

The study's findings are that workplaces where people feel comfortable with their co-workers are more likely to be productive. It notes that those workplaces are more likely to have swearing. That's correlation, friends, not causality. It's also not civility.

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