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Curses! Has workplace swearing gone too far?

25 June 2013

It is said swearing is the sign of an inadequate vocabulary or a bankrupt mind.

Some would argue that swearing can be a useful tool for ambitious executives, enabling them to express the power of their convictions and the seriousness of their cause. Others would point to the effects on other employees, particularly in the context of the need to maintain a safe workplace.

While social conventions have liberalised since the 1960s with regards to swearing on the television or at home, work is still a grey area and a potential minefield for both employers and employees.

Employees have been dismissed in Australia in recent times for swearing and the issue has featured in a number of cases before the Fair Work Commission (FWC). In these situations, context has been key, as has the issue of procedural fairness.

For example, in a 2011 FWC case, a language college teacher was dismissed following his use of the swear word "f...k" in an English language exercise with students. He then lodged an unfair dismissal claim. The college claimed he had provided a worksheet to students with the word in question appearing in every sentence on it and that it was highly offensive.

The teacher claimed he had used the swear word as part of his teaching in order to discuss with the students the various uses and meanings of the word. He explained that English language students often hear the word and feel instantly insulted when the word is not intended by the speaker to be insulting. Alternatively, because the word is used frequently by Australians, the students may use it at times when it is not appropriate.

It was significant that the teacher was not given the opportunity to respond to the claims. The dismissal also had a further significant impact on the teacher; as a UK citizen with visa conditions dependent on his employment at the college, he was forced to leave Australia once he had been dismissed.

The FWC considered there was a valid reason for dismissal and that the teacher was notified of the reason. However, he was not given an opportunity to respond to the college's concerns and thus the dismissal was unfair. The FWC ordered $16,874.36 be paid in compensation to the teacher.

Whether or not dismissal for swearing at work is appropriate and would be upheld by the Fair Work Commission if challenged, may depend, amongst other things, on the context of when, to whom, where and how the conduct occurred.

Following proper procedures in terms of investigating an employee who has been accused of misconduct (including swearing) is vital. Failure to follow an impartial and transparent process may jeopardise any decision to terminate. It is also important to ensure that the claims are put to the accused employee and that they are given a reasonable opportunity to respond.

Employers should consider the culture of their workplace and how employees swearing should be treated. It is important for employers to be consistent in their approach to swearing as prior leniency may compromise the ability to terminate for swearing. Appropriate workplace policies will assist employers in setting standards and being in a position to enforce those standards in the workplace.

Although the majority of workers would clearly support the idea of workplaces free of aggressive or offensive behaviour, what is "acceptable" language or conduct is debatable. In some cases, unionists say swearing can be merely an excuse to sack workers. The Mackay depot of a large freight company introduced a three-strike swearing policy, in which workers receive a written warning for each incident of swearing in the workplace, and after three warnings they can be dismissed.

Tom Pfund, the North Queensland TWU organiser, said the measures were "ludicrous" and should apply to management, too. ''To have that sort of policy, that's just a bullying and intimidation tactic that's completely unnecessary," Mr Pfund said. "It's not right across the board."

People may have different opinions about whether it is a good idea, but colourful language is a fact of life in many offices. While a July 2012 survey by CareerBuilder found that bosses might be less likely to promote employees who swear, more than half of respondents said they do it anyway. Additionally, a UK study published earlier this year found that swearing in the workplace actually builds camaraderie.

"It's highly contextually dependent. In high-powered, high-stress situations, you're probably going to hear (swearing)," says Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams, Mass. and author of Why We Curse (John Benjamins Publishing Co. 2000).

What can employers learn from these cases? Ensure there is a clear policy about what kind of language is appropriate for the workplace, and make sure employees are aware of it. Respond quickly to any language that doesn't fit your policy—but be sensitive to context. Many workplaces are increasingly informal, and some employees may misjudge the appropriateness of their language in this context.

iHR Australia also cautions that simply having Human Resources policies is not enough – they must be clearly communicated to employees in clear language in order to fulfil their legal and culture-building effectiveness. Managers should also act as role models to set the tone in the workplace and provide visible consistency with organisational values.

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