Swearing is Not a Substitute for Being Good at Your Job. But Can it Help?

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Everyone has done it.  Whether in a fit of rage, while watching a close sports game or experiencing pain, the occasional expletive is part of a standard vocabulary.  But what happens when such language is uttered in the workplace? At what point does friendly banter or light-hearted self-criticism become a breach of the public service code of conduct?

Swearing

Public servants are legally obliged to “treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment”.

Executives like Yahoo’s former CEO Carol Bartz and T-Mobile’s current CEO John Legere have both happily and publicly dropped the f-bomb.  Even US President Barack Obama famously said he was trying to figure out “whose ass to kick” after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Clearly, swearing hasn’t stopped every potty-mouth’s career progress.

One study even shows that “judicious” use of swearing can make you more persuasive. Maybe, out of the right mouth, it’s a leadership tool.

The answer is no longer as simple as it might once have been; coarse language has become increasingly commonplace in society.  As a fair work commission explained last year, “there is no doubt that workplaces are more robust in 2015, as they relate to the use of swearing, than they were in the 1940s”.  Drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct is increasingly difficult.

The right image

Does swearing make you look stupid and unprofessional?

Many people think employees should take the high road.  A CareerBuilder survey found that 81% of employers think profanity is unprofessional.  And most think it shows immaturity, a lack of control and even makes the employee appear less intelligent.

“You might ask what harm does it do, but what good does it do? It can make you feel better, but it doesn’t earn you respect, reflect strong character, solve disagreements, exhibit intelligence, or get you promoted,” says James O’Connor, the author of Cuss Control, a book on how to curb cursing.

A career booster?

Nobody’s suggesting that swearing is a substitute for being good at your job.  But can it help? Some research suggests it might, in a roundabout sort of way.

In a 2007 study, a researcher went on an undercover mission, as a worker at a British mail-order warehouse.  He was initially excluded from the social group in the office, but things changed after he swore at another employee.  It was a sort of initiation rite that cemented a bond with the rest of the group.

The co-author of the study, Yehuda Baruch, who’s now a professor at the University of Southampton Business School, says that swearing like a sailor isn’t just a blue-collar hobby.

“We are all human beings, and even if you’re a distinguished lawyer, you might swear,” according to Baruch.  

But how does that help? Well, carpet bombing your workplace with profanity won’t get you a promotion, but fitting in at the workplace helps.

“I’m not saying this a major criteria for promotion, but one criteria for promotion is the ability to connect with people. In certain contexts, swearing is a way to connect,” he says.

Two sides of the coin

But this might also suggest a broader problem with swearing.  If it serves to consolidate the bonds in one group, is it to the exclusion of others? And if so, could it play a part in making the workplace more hostile?

“Society is a lot more permissive now than say in the 1960s in terms of what you can say,” Hassall says.  

Most workplaces today aren’t concerned about offending tender ears.  They’re interested in creating a harmonious and productive working environment.  Employment cases that involve swearing are more often about something more serious, like bullying or harassment.

“Swearing usually expresses anger or a negative attitude that can be contagious, creating a less pleasant working environment,” James O’Connor says.

But there is a clear exception to this rule.  There’s far less tolerance for sexist and racist language, which can quickly cross the legal line into sexual harassment or discrimination.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, swearing is flat out illegal in some countries.  Recently, rapper 50 Cent was arrested and fined for using profanity during one of his shows in St Kitts. In the United Arab Emirates, there are more serious penalties, even for swearing over a messaging app.

Figuring out what’s acceptable in other cultures can be very tricky.  While religion-based swearing has lost its impact in many western countries, blasphemy laws are still enforced in the Middle East.

In some Asian cultures, a poorly-placed swear word might result in a loss of face, which could sour the relationship.  Even within the US, there are some pretty dramatic differences in what people find offensive.  In short, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution if you don’t know the rules.

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Reference: Canberra Times, BBC

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