Last week, Time Magazine discussed research that suggests that using curse words can help cope with physical pain. This reminds me of a 2007 research that implies that regular swearing helps employees better express their feelings in stressful circumstances and boosts team morale.
Such research is misleading in that the findings may be perceived as approving of profanity at work. As work environments have become more laid-back over the years, swearing is more commonplace than in the past, especially in blue-collar environments and certain other workplace cultures.
Harry S. Dennis III of The Executive Committee (TEC) in Wisconsin and Michigan explores two bases for the tolerance of profanity in workplaces.
- The laid-back we-are-all-in-this-together culture is almost like a fraternity environment. The use of profanity somehow communicates a symbolic unity. Employees believe that their degree of comfort with one another means it’s OK to let down their guard. It becomes a casual exchange and falsely suggests a degree of communication intimacy.
- In the hard-driving aggressive environment, employees use profanity to communicate urgency, a need for action. Most swear words are one syllable, so they carry a bullet-like impact and light a fire under the butt of the person on the receiving end so they get the job done. It is, in fact, a terrible negative motivator.
Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, Bob Nardelli at Home Depot, Carol Betz at Yahoo! and other executives are reported to have cussed at work. When leaders and managers swear without restraint to express annoyance at an employee, colleague, competitor, customer or circumstance, the message they convey to their organizations is that profanity is acceptable. This is akin to potty-mouthed parents hinting that it is probably OK for their watchful kids to use curse words.
Swearing and poor language is not acceptable in any professional setting. Swearing is dysfunctional to the cohesiveness of teams. Many employees find use of expletives as discourteous and quickly lose respect for those using profane language. Managers’ abusive management style can quickly intimidate employees who may hesitate to speak out.
Bad language is unacceptable behavior. Organizations should require that employees exercise common sense and avoid using colorful language. HR must deal with issues of swearing in the workplace as they occur and institute disciplinary procedures to prevent charges of workplace bullying, abuse or discrimination. Leaders and managers should curb their own language and comply privately and publicly. Employees, even high-performing ones, who repeatedly disregard such requirements and undermine the trust and morale of workplace environments must go openly.