Does your workplace need a policy about profanity

By: Judy Kneiszel

Publication: Employee Relations Management Today

Date Posted: 08/03/2021

3 tips on company policy forprofane language

In some workplaces, cursing is not tolerated under any circumstances, while in other work environments a strict ban on profanity is likely to be met with more than a few choice words or eye rolls.

The debate over swearing in the workplace has kept tongues wagging for years, with some surveys asserting that it makes employers and colleagues question the intelligence, control, and professionalism of vulgar workers, and other studies insisting that cursing relieves stress and creates camaraderie among coworkers.

With no definitive rules or regulations about profanity, companies are left to their own devices to develop policies that work for them, and company culture plays a significant role in developing and enforcing such a policy.

Company policies about profanity should be as specific as possible and should be included in the employee handbook and other training materials. The handbook should also outline disciplinary measures when employees violate the rules (a progressive policy starting with a verbal warning is recommended).

What to consider when drafting a company policy about profane language:

Company culture plays a significant role in developing and enforcing a profanity policy. If you choose to create such a policy, keep these three points in mind:

1. Describe context

If you are not going to place an all-out ban on profanity (and really, do you want to enforce that?) then you are going to need to describe the context of acceptable and unacceptable cursing.

If most of your employees work in a manufacturing environment where cursing has long been allowed on the factory floor, you might inform employees that, while cursing may be overlooked in the shop, it is generally prohibited in front of customers, visitors, or while representing the company during interaction with the general public (for example, while wearing a logoed shirt or uniform).

2. Define “offensive”

Defining what is offensive will likely be your most difficult challenge in drafting a policy because the concept is entirely subjective. What might offend one person will be perfectly tolerable to the next person, and it all depends on context.

To that end, you can (and should) absolutely ban specific language that is unacceptable in any context, such as slurs about race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, as well as sexual innuendo. Such language can invite claims of harassment or a hostile work environment, and you are required by law to address such issues.

Profanity can also be an indication of potential workplace violence. The Department of Labor considers “verbal abuse including offensive, profane and vulgar language” to be included in the forms of violence among coworkers, so you can also ban profane language that is specifically used to intimidate or bully.

You might also require that employees respect the views and sensitivities of coworkers, and if they are asked to refrain from using certain words or phrases, they should make every effort to accommodate the wishes of those around them.

3. Discipline consistently

If you choose to create a policy about profanity, be prepared to consistently enforce the disciplinary process you put in place.

Failure to consistently enforce policies makes them toothless, and inconsistency in discipline can leave you open to claims of discrimination.

About the author
Judy Kneiszel - Human Resources Editor

Judy is an Associate Editor on the Human Resources Publishing Team and she specializes in issues such as recruiting and hiring, onboarding and training, employee communication and discipline, managing problems, team building, inclusion, employee retention, and labor relations

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