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Foul-mouthed employee reinstated after FWA overturns dismissal

If you're not a wharfie or a fishwife, choice of language in the workplace can be a sensitive topic—or, as a security truck driver discovered, a potential career killer.

In this recent case before Fair Work Australia, the security driver was dismissed for, among other things, use of colourful language in the workplace. The Fair Work ruling touched on a couple of particulars:

  • First, the ruling confirmed that the driver's language to his supervisor was inappropriate and unwarranted.

  • Second, the ruling noted the difference between swearing at another person and swearing at an inanimate object or using bad language to describe traffic or weather.

  • Third, the ruling highlighted the "mixed messages" the security firm's employees received about bad language—the fact that bad language was common in that particular workplace, despite a policy that says swearing is not tolerated.

In response, the security firm acknowledged these mixed messages and said that in deciding if bad language constituted misconduct, they would consider the context, location, the person it was directed toward and the manner in which it was said.

Fair Work Australia found that the driver's dismissal was unfair (the procedural fairness of the investigation was also called into question) and the driver was reinstated.

What can employers learn from this case? Ensure you have 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.

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