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Career Coach: The use of obscenity at work

By Joyce E.A. Russell,

Donald Trump attracted a lot of media attention recently when he dropped the F-bomb in a speech in Las Vegas. Some have debated whether his use of vulgarity disqualifies him for the presidency.

These days, it seems that some people’s language has indeed gotten worse — instead of one or two questionable utterances they are making more vulgar statements. There are some studies that have examined the pervasiveness of obscene language in the workplace, and have found that in high-stress jobs it is more common.

While any type of profanity or vulgarity might be offensive to people at work, the biggest problem is when the swearing is directed at people, be they co-workers, bosses, employees or customers. The occasional swearing at the copy machine or printer for breaking down is not as bothersome to people.

In any context, though, using bad language often affects people’s impressions of you. Some may view a person using vulgar language as lower in intelligence and patience. I have heard people describe a foul-mouthed speaker as a “loose cannon” or someone who is angry, tense, impatient or frustrated.

For jobs that require thoughtful leadership, bad language can cause people to worry that someone may not be able to control his or her emotions and handle situations with the necessary tact and diplomacy. They might question the character of the person who is swearing, regarding the individual as not professional.

Swearing can also affect how offensive or hostile others find the work environment. Sexual harassment often includes the use of obscene language and is still a problem in many U.S. workplaces.

A person who swears with employees is probably also likely to be using similar crude language with clients and customers. Is this the image the company really wants to send to important stakeholders?

Does it matter how much offensive language is being used? Probably. Using one bad word here or there is often regarded as different from using a stream of four-letter words. People often view the constant use of bad language as indicative of negativity. Unfortunately, people often do not tell someone that the swearing bothers them or is in bad taste. Often, listeners do not want to make a big deal about it so they ignore it, even if they are uncomfortable. This is unfortunate since the person who is swearing is ruining perceptions of himself without getting feedback.

That may be changing. Over the years, I have called on many business executives to give speeches to various groups of employees or students. I have noticed that audiences are becoming increasingly critical of swearing. Five years ago, it seemed that people could swear to make a point and most people would not be too bothered. Now it seems to be more offensive to people.

In some situations, companies have been so bothered that they have developed a “Language Codes of Ethics” with anti-cursing policies. In one firm, management defined inappropriate language as “unwanted, deliberate, repeated, unsolicited profanity, cussing, swearing, vulgar, insulting, abusive or crude language,” and violators are subject to disciplinary action. There are even people who offer corporate training (e.g., Cuss Control Academy). The premise is that for some people swearing is so natural that they don’t even know they are doing it. By making them aware of it and its impact on others, it can be managed, at least at work. In most cases, it is legal for companies to institute language-control policies.

So, before you get ready to shout a bunch of curse words at work, pretend your grandmother is listening. Or, if you wonder why your bosses or co-workers do not perceive you in the best light, perhaps it’s the language you are using. Maybe “the Donald” has done us a favor by illustrating how unprofessional offensive language can actually sound in the business world.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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