Q: One of our employees uses bad language fairly regularly. He doesn't do it to abuse people so it is not harassment, but nevertheless some.
The founder of Papa John’s resigned because of a single use of the n-word. Gudrun Limbrick considers whether resignation or dismissal is the right response to using a single word which, in some arenas, is in common use.
Papa John’s founder resigned his role in the company for reportedly using the n-word in a phone conversation. He resigned after news of the slur was featured in Forbes, the business magazine. Are there things we can say which are so offensive in the workplace that the person has to be removed immediately from their jobs? And to what extent is it the employer’s job to police how we talk at work?
John Schnatter founded Papa John’s, the pizza company, in 1984. So synonymous was he with the brand that he himself was known as Papa John. So successful was the company that it has been one of the three largest pizza restaurant chains in the world. In 2017, there was controversy about his views on some National Football League players not standing for the US national anthem. Papa John’s was a sponsor of the National Football League at the time. As a result of the scandal, John Schnatter resigned as CEO of the company.
In 2018, it was reported that, in a telephone conference call about the controversy, John Schnatter had used the n-word, allegedly saying ”Colonel Sanders called blacks [the n-word] and never faced public outcry”. When this conversation became public, John Schnatter resigned as chair of the board.
This can perhaps be seen as an extreme example of swearing at work. First, John Schnatter himself was a public figure with great interest shown in his political, and other, views. As such, he had the power to severely impact on the company’s public image. Second, the n-word is not simply a swear word, it is a strong racial slur with extremely negative and offensive connotations.
On the other hand, the slur was made in what could have been assumed to be a relatively private conversation with no indications that it had been overheard by anyone other than those intended to be in the conversation. It has also been reported that he has complained that he was provoked into using the racial slur and that the full context of the conversation was not taken into account. He claimed that he had earlier said that he would not work with Kanye West because of his use of the n-word.
The popular view of swearing in the workplace is mixed. For some, it is a useful release of stress — a normal way of venting about the frustrations of the day. And the words used are relatively commonplace, so much so that they are not always regarded as swearing. After all, swearing is very much part of the dynamic nature of language and, as such, much more a part of general vocabularies than it used to be. It is such a habit for some people, that stopping swearing would in itself be problematic. For others, swearing is, by its very nature, offensive, shocking and upsetting regardless of who says it, the words used and the intention therein. Amid these very different views, it is in the employer’s interest, at the very least, to encourage a harmonious working environment.
For employers, there are three factors which may influence their response to swearing in the workplace:
The nature of the swearing
Swearing can simply be the use of a word that is popularly considered to be a swear word as emphasis or in frustration. However, swear words can also have offensive connotations and may be racially or sexually offensive. They may (whether the user is aware of it or not) be offensive to women, or men, or members of a particular race or religion. As such they may be considered to be discrimination which is disciplinary offence. Swearing in front of, or about, a particular individual may also be part of a bullying or harassment campaign which, again, should be a disciplinary offence.
The context of the swearing
Swearing in a private phone call which cannot be overheard may be viewed as being qualitatively different to swearing loudly in an open plan office. Similarly, swearing when a person stubs their toe might be viewed differently from swearing when someone fails to hand over a piece of paper quickly enough. Also, if swearing is commonplace in an office, it would not be appropriate to discipline a single individual for their foul mouth. Some places of work should not tolerate swearing: schools, for example, have to be swearing-free zones for obvious reasons.
The impact on the reputation of the company
Swearing in front of customers, or partner organisations, can bring a company into disrepute. An employer may feel that this warrants disciplinary procedures.
If an employer does decide that swearing does warrant disciplinary procedures, the correct procedures must be followed as with any other disciplinary action. The sudden and shocking nature of swearing does not change how measured the employer’s response has to be.
Monitoring swearing is, of course, not as straightforward as it used to be. Private mobile phones mean that people take personal calls at work (even if only in their break times) and swearing may play a part in these non-work conversations. Similarly, swearing can also be a part of emails or conversations on social media, whether or not these are work-related. If the aim is not to have swearing in the workplace, private conversations in the workplace will be a part of this.
In an ideal world, an employer will have a policy about swearing that details what is acceptable and what is not acceptable so that people are aware of how far they can take swearing, if it is tolerated at all. This not only makes things clearer for employees, but it will help employers to react appropriately if a complaint is made about someone’s swearing. To this end, a policy should err on the side of intolerance, although an employer may feel they are being prudish. Swearing tends to be “catching”’. When one person swears, others tend to follow suit and it can escalate quickly as they warm to their swearing. This, in turn, can lead to complaints of offensive language.
An employer has a responsibility to ensure that its policy on harassment, bullying and discrimination is sufficiently robust to come into play if offensive language is being used in this fashion. It would also be useful to have a robust policy on swearing so that employees have the confidence to know that if they have a complaint about language, it will be dealt with appropriately.
However, that being said, language is a very fluid thing. Different words mean different things to different people, and it is true to say that people do not always understand the meanings or connotations of the words they use, whereas other people may be highly sensitive to them. An employer needs to explore this as part of any complaint about offensive language and bring in some flexibility where appropriate. Awareness training may also be useful in some more tricky cases.
Last reviewed 23 January 2019
Maybe not says language and science writer Emma Byrne, who in her new book, Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad.
It has long been a national sport to debate the extent of ‘political correctness’ in today’s society, and how it is out of control to the degree that seemingly innocuous phrases now have the potential to cause offence.
What is or is not offensive language can often depend on the sensitivity of the listener, and although there are groups of words and phrases which will always be offensive, there is a debate to be had over words or phrases that may not be overtly offensive to some.
In the workplace, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that their employees are not exposed to language that they may deem offensive or inappropriate. This means the employer must take active steps to ensure they have done everything possible to maintain an appropriate working environment. This is no straightforward task when it is impossible to foresee which words might cause offence. The employer cannot be in every corner of the workplace listening to each and every exchange. So what can they do to discharge this duty?
It helps to first look at the potential claims that might arise where an employee is exposed to offensive language in the workplace. For a start, staff are protected from harassment and less favourable treatment on the grounds of race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, religious belief and age.
The problem for employers addressing this issue does not appear to lie in the extreme. A person using overtly racist language in the workplace is unlikely to be tolerated by either the employer or his colleagues and would most likely be dismissed fairly promptly. Problems tend to arise where language is said in ‘jest’, and where the individuals using the language did not understand or realise the potential offence that could be caused. For example, two managers (one male, one female) may have a work-based friendship where they often joke and tease each other. But if in the context of that relationship the male manager uses a joke connected to the female’s sex, this could potentially constitute harassment under sex discrimination legislation and result in a claim. The individual would then be entitled to compensation for injury to feeling that would be the responsibility of the employer.
The employer that will be most able to defend such an action will have recognised the importance of implementing a framework of policies and procedures consisting of an equal opportunities policy, a protection from harassment and bullying policy, and a comprehensive and accessible grievance procedure. But responsibility does not end there, and a careful employer would provide a training programme where equality and diversity training was compulsory for all staff.
As a further means of policing behaviour and communication in the workplace, employers are also advised to undertake some spot checks on their e-mail and internet systems, with the support of an appropriate policy notifying employees that their e-mail communications are being monitored.
There has been a series of legal cases where the employer has argued that offensive banter was a common and accepted part of the working environment relevant to that industry. In the 2007 case Queen’s Court Ltd v Nyateka, it was determined that an employee would not be precluded from making a claim just because they partook in offensive ‘banter’ themselves.
The employee complained that her line manager had subjected her to racially offensive language. The employer demonstrated that the claimant had frequently used banter of a racist and sexist nature themselves, referring to colleagues as “white bitches”. But the claimant succeeded in her action. Although the award was minimal at £1,250, the employer had spent time and money defending the action, and was also left with a finding of race discrimination against it, which can cause significant problems for an employer’s reputation.
This case highlighted another important issue. When the claimant raised her complaint, she was suspended pending an investigation. This was deemed as less favourable treatment on the grounds of race. Employers dealing with such a scenario would need to make a decision as to how the process should progress. This will depend on the individual circumstances and legal advice should be sought.
There is another important category of complainant. Some individuals may observe the use of offensive language which, although not relevant or directed to them personally, they may still find offensive. That individual also has the right to bring this to their employer’s attention, and if they are then subjected to detrimental treatment (either by the employer directly or by other employees), they can complain to an employment tribunal that they have been subjected to victimisation. This will entitle those individuals to damages for injury to feelings.
The employer should protect those complainants through their policies and procedures. This means that the protection from bullying and harassment policy and the grievance procedure need to have some provision for those who wish to bring such issues to the employer’s attention. This may extend to anonymity if appropriate, and the employer will also need to look at whether they need to have a specific policy for protected disclosures – in other words, whistleblowing.
Circumstances can also arise where offensive or inappropriate language is used but may not be covered by discrimination legislation. This would then result in the employee having a grievance for bullying and harassment. If an employee has been subjected to bullying and harassment but the matter is not properly dealt with by the employer, the individual may bring a claim in the High Court for personal injury damages under the Protection from Harassment Act. To protect themselves, employers should look at training managers to deal with grievances fairly and, in particular, training on how to conduct a fair and thorough investigation.
Vanessa James is head of employment, SA Law
Your policy should address the following considerations:
Question: I work for the State CDCR. I transferred from one prison to a different prison. Employees here use profanity both in interactions with colleagues and inmates. I’ve complained about [this] before and in a progress note. I wrote [that] my supervisor was using derogatory language when interacting with an inmate.
I was given a written warning after that about my negative behavior. I filed EEO internal complaints and now I am constantly being reprimanded and told I am talking negative about this prison. I have made comments that at my last prison, same CDCR, we did not act unprofessional and use vulgar language, but here it seems acceptable.
We did things differently back home. The prison where I work now seems to have its share of people who will come forward and say I have said things that undermine their institution. It is a prison town. I am an outsider.
I have been accused of calling their prison a ghetto prison. Can they fire me or cause an adverse action?
Answer: Some people call profanity “crude,” but others say it is no cruder to say “damn” or “crap” than to use “hate.” People who use profanity do not always mean to make anybody feel bad, and tolerance for different forms of profanity can vary widely from person to person. In sum, profanity is a type of language which includes dirty words and ideas. Swear words, obscene gestures and naughty jokes are all considered profanity.
Some people develop a mental condition where they use profanity constantly. This is called “coprolalia.”
First Amendment governs
What you should know about the First Amendment is that it is a limit only on government. It prohibits the federal government from making laws which infringe on the rights of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Through the Fourteenth Amendment, state and local governments are also prohibited from infringing on these rights.
Context is key
When it comes to swearing in the workplace, context is key.
Employers cannot look at swearing in a vacuum. Instead, they need to consider all the circumstances and ensure they take a measured approach. While there may be no clear line, an employer should never act too hastily and must ensure employees are afforded procedural fairness in all circumstances.
However, there are limits to what the government allows. The following employee workplace speech is not legally protected: sharing confidential information, controversial political views, rude jokes or comments and profanity.
Profanity in the workplace
Profanity is not rare in the work environment, but employers do not always know how to respond. For example: Can you terminate and or discipline an employee who directs the F-word to his supervisor? What if it is the supervisor who is using profanity? Can the employer ignore it?
The answer is: It depends. Traditionally, one would expect that cussing out your boss would constitute good cause for termination. But, again, the context of the offensive language is key.
Any workplace is populated by a range of employees. It is only natural that a supervisor might wish to give benefit of the doubt to a good employee who makes a linguistic slip-up, but may terminate a less good employee whose unsavory comment is the “last straw.”
On the other hand, a supervisor’s use of profanity in the workplace could be found to create a hostile work environment, depending on the frequency and, you guessed it, context. For this reason, all employee complaints about profanity must be taken seriously.
Admonition to Government Employers
Government Employers should not disregard bad language and should use their discretion to decide if it has the potential to offend or cause harm to other employees. If this is the case and incidents remain ignored, employers could appear to be condoning behavior which could amount to bullying.
Having a sensible policy in place can provide guidance to employees as to what is deemed inappropriate and the standards that are expected. It can also help to make employees feel that they are not too restricted on what they can say.
The free exercise of speech in any form is not an absolute right as the government may place reasonable restrictions as to the time, place and manner. Public employees who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement are also permitted to engage in speech related to the terms and conditions of employment, within parameters and so long as it does not disrupt the workplace. In other words, even if your speech is a matter of public concern, your interest in expressing yourself is weighed against any disruption or injury that the exercise of the speech could cause to your employer. Courts have found that speech interferes with the government employer’s interests in functioning if it impairs discipline, work relationships, or interferes in the performance of your public service duties. By way of example, the government is allowed to prohibit employees from using offensive speech towards citizens (Prisoners are citizens.) or other co-workers; and, employers are generally given authority to respond, and declare or curtail if necessary, speech in the workplace, including profanity and foul language.
Not foreseeable you could be disciplined or fired for complaining about the use of profanity and foul language in your workplace.
Remember the purpose of this column is to provide information. It should never be understood as providing specific legal advice. Consult your attorney.
I welcome your comments and questions.
To ask a legal question, email [email protected] or send mail to Ask Attorney Bernie, c/o Beaver County Times, 400 Fair Ave., Beaver, PA 15009.
triochitarristicodiroma.com behavior description and characteristics for inappropriate language and targeted and specific tier 1 positive interventions and supports.
It normally takes time to settle into a new job and get comfortable being around new people.
Some of us never truly get comfortable around them, and some of us get a little too comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that we fail to filter our thoughts before we put them into words. And what we say – no matter how innocent or harmless it may seem – can be potentially career-ending.
Here are 20 inappropriate words and phrases that should never, ever be said in the workplace.
Using words like ‘think’ show that you lack confidence in what you’re saying. Allow me to demonstrate: which of the two following statements do you think is the most authoritative?
The answer is 2, right? And that’s because it uses more assertive and passionate words like ‘believe’, ‘know’, ‘confident’ and ‘will’.
This little phrase can have huge consequences for your career – so much so that you might as well have said ‘That’s not my promotion’. Not willing to go the extra mile when you’re asked to (that said, you shouldn’t really need to be asked to go the extra mile) makes you stand out as uncooperative, lazy, incompetent and irresponsible. All qualities that employers do not actively look for in employees. If you really don’t want to do something, there are other – and far better – ways to say ‘no’.
Whether it’s because you don’t like someone or you’re not too keen on their work style, publicly refusing to work with them will only reflect badly on you. Set your differences aside and find a way to work together. This will allow you demonstrate your teamwork skills and your ability to overcome challenges when they arise – both of which are highly sought after qualities in employees.
Let’s face it: work can get a bit too much sometimes, thanks to overwhelming workloads, looming deadlines and annoying co-workers. And a glass (or bottle) of wine, whisky or [insert choice alcohol here] can seem like the only thing that will help you get through the day. But exclaiming that you’re dying for a drink can give people the impression that you’re an alcoholic or even offend a colleague who knows someone who is (or are themselves) battling an alcohol problem.
There are many millennial slang words which have become ingrained in pop culture, so much so that they’ve been added to the Oxford Dictionary. ‘Cray-cray’ is one such example. Yet, despite their popularity, they simply don’t belong in the workplace. They make you seem immature and damage your professional image. Remember: you’re not 15 anymore; you’re a responsible adult. Other examples of slang words not to use at work include ‘totes’ and ‘YOLO’.
Nobody expects you to have the answers to everything. If you did, you’d probably be sitting under the sun on your exotic private island – not working for someone else. But having said that, simply shrugging your shoulders when (especially) your boss asks you something is basically career suicide. Instead, offer your best guess or promise to find out whatever it is they want to know by asking someone who does know or, heck, Googling it.
Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it was John’s fault. But dodging the blame and pointing fingers makes people trust you less and damages morale. If you’re innocent, explain why by offering an objective explanation of what happened – without throwing your co-workers under the bus! Stick to the facts and let your boss draw their own conclusions who’s to blame. If you bear the primary responsibility, own up to your mistakes – having said that, don’t keep taking the blame for your team’s f*ck-ups (you might feel responsible for them or don’t want them to get into trouble, for example) as people will start taking advantage of you. Likewise, if you keep accusing others for errors (whether your own or your colleagues’), your boss will eventually start questioning who’s really to blame.
Originally used in Venice to refer to the part of the city where Jews were restricted and segregated, the word has since been applied in various contexts and has racist and classist connotations. More recently, the word ‘ghetto’ is used to describe something that is ‘bad’ or ‘low quality’. The problem, though, is that – as Mario Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard School, so eloquently put it in an article for the BBC – ‘it’s very difficult to disassociate it from its use to characterise low-income African Americans’.
You’ve got a backlog of tasks to complete and projects to deliver, not to mention a dozen deadlines looming over you. You’re obviously a very busy person and there’s just not enough time in a workday to get everything done. But telling a co-worker or, worse, your boss that you don’t have time for them is simply rude and it effectively demonstrates your poor time management skills. If you really don’t have time, say something like: ‘I’d be happy to discuss this with you after my meeting. Can I drop by your office at 2pm?’ Likewise, if your boss asks you to add another task to your already overwhelming workload, ask them which of your existing tasks you should put on the back-burner to accommodate the new task’s priority.
No one can do everything – we’re only human, after all. But saying you’ll ‘try’ to do something simply suggests failure. ‘I’ll do it’, on the other hand, inspires confidence and it helps people know they can rely on you. If, for whatever reason, you’re unable to do something, then don’t and simply explain why you can’t. Don’t leave people hanging by telling them you’ll try to do whatever it is they’re asking you to do. To quote the great Jedi Master, Yoda: ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’
Ask anyone, anywhere in the world, and they’ll most likely tell you they don’t get paid enough for what they do, either, whether they’re a receptionist or a CEO. Even if you’re asked to do something that isn’t normally part of your job description, and regardless how inconvenient the request may be, saying something along the lines of ‘I’ll be glad to help’ will be a better response than complaining about your salary. Meanwhile, if you really think you’re worth more than what you’re already being paid, then why not ask for a raise?
It could be a little hard to see what’s so bad about this particular phrase – after all, you’re recognising your team’s successes – but the problem lies in the word ‘guys’, especially when your team is comprised of both men and women. Sure, there are bigger issues than the use of androcentric language in the workplace to worry about (like the gender pay gap, for example), but referring to a group of men and women as ‘guys’ here insinuates that the men did all the work and effectively helps create a sexist working environment. Next time, prefer to say something like ‘Good job, team!’ or ‘Good job, everyone!’
There’s been a wealth of research on the effects of workplace gossiping, with some studies suggesting that it helps create stronger bonds between people. But by that logic, it simply excludes and isolates those who are being gossiped, effectively creating a hostile and stressful working environment.
In recent years, the word ‘gay’ has been used as a pejorative to express dislike, the same way you would say something is ‘lame’ or ‘uncool’. However, using offensive and derogatory terms like this in the workplace is simply unprofessional and politically incorrect because it can be viewed as discrimination against sexual orientation (which, under the Equality Act 2010, is a protected characteristic).
I’m not suggesting that you don’t apologise for your (hopefully few and far in between) mistakes at work but rather that you avoid playing the Extended Disco Remix of ‘I’m So, So Sorry (Please Forgive Me)’. Own up to your mistakes, apologise sincerely for them and move on – and don’t remind your boss how sorry you are every time you pass them in the hall!
If you ever do say this, why not roll on the floor and throw a temper tantrum? I mean, you might as well go all out if you decide to start acting like a four-year-old. While it might seem ‘unfair’ that a colleague got a raise and you didn’t, complaining and whining about it will get you nowhere – it’ll only make you look bad. Instead, build a case and present an intelligent argument to the appropriate person. (It’s also important to note that there’s a very good chance your colleague deserved that raise or they simply have better negotiation skills than you.)
Working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday can become quite monotonous, to say the least. To combat this and make work a much more enjoyable experience, people talk and make jokes. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. But when those jokes are laced with sexual innuendo, it becomes a problem. It can be offensive and disrespectful, and it opens you up to sexual harassment claims.
It’s only natural that we don’t get along with every single person we work with. In fact, we might even wish a couple of them dead. But it’s one thing to mentally go over the many different ways you could do them in (and get away with it) and quite another to actually threaten them with their demise at your hands.
You’ll most likely use this phrase to congratulate a co-worker or junior employee for a job well done – and there’s no harm in that, is there? Well, while there’s nothing wrong with recognising someone’s work (in fact, it’s encouraged), saying things like ‘Good girl!’ or ‘Atta boy!’ is quite condescending. Remember: you’re congratulating a co-worker for doing a good job, not your dog for obeying your command to sit.
While swearing is a natural part of human communication and linguistic self-expression, there’s really no place for it in the workplace. Understand that not everyone you work with will be comfortable with profanity (even if it’s not directed at or relevant to them). Moreover, dropping F-bombs and a variety of other colourful words can also hamper your professional reputation and, effectively, ruin your chances of career advancement. In fact, a 2012 study by CareerBuilder found that 64% of US employers think less of employees who swear and 57% were less likely to promote offenders!
Have you ever used any of these inappropriate words or phrases in the workplace? Have you ever gotten into trouble for swearing or gossiping? Can you think of any other words and phrases you should avoid in the office? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts and experiences with us!
Whatever the context, employers and employees who swear and use foul language in the workplace are potentially getting close to the borders.