A recent survey conducted for CareerBuilder.com is a good reminder that our words matter. Employers and employees were asked about swearing in the workplace. 51% of workers surveyed said they swear at work, although they reported being much less likely to swear in front of superiors than in front of their co-workers. 81% of employers said that swearing brings an employee’s professionalism into question, 71% said that it indicates lack of control, and 68% said it indicates a lack of maturity. Overall, 64% of employers reported that they would think less of an employee who repeatedly swears, and 57% said they would be less likely to promote an employee who swears.
The survey reported, among other things, that more workplace swearing goes on in Washington D.C., where 62% of employees reported swearing at work, than in Minneapolis (50%) and Philadelphia (44%). I’m betting that the acceptability of swearing varies a lot from workplace to workplace, too. Twenty years ago, I moved from a firm where salty language was very common to my current firm, where I’ve never heard a swear word uttered in a group setting. That was an adjustment for me, and I can imagine that similar culture shock occurs frequently as employees move from one workplace to another. Employers should not assume that everyone they hire will automatically understand the culture of their new workplace. It’s essential to make expectations for language and behavior clear in both policy and practice, and to point out and correct inappropriate language or behavior when it occurs. The line between profanity and harassing language can be very thin, and a workplace that tolerates a lot of swearing may find itself accused of tolerating harassment. Swearing may also be seen as part of bullying behavior that employers need to be concerned about.
Employers’ rules and expectations can make a difference, but individual employees have to take ultimate responsibility for their written and oral communications. The best guideline I know of for managing your own language can be summed up this way: “You don’t say ‘s**t’ to your grandmother.” We all need to be conscious of our audience and sensitive to who’s listening to us. We need to remember that what’s acceptable to us is not necessarily acceptable to others, and that we can offend without meaning to. In today’s world of electronic communication, perhaps the rule should be modified to read “You don’t say, text, email, or tweet ‘s**t’ to your grandmother.”