Is It Ever Wise to Swear at Work?


By Michael Lee Stallard and Katie Russell

You discover a careless error your administrative assistant made in printing a proposal you need to present to a potential new client in a few hours. Should you swear to express your frustration?

How about when you are speaking to the people you lead who are clearly not giving their best efforts?

How about if you are a woman in a male-dominated culture and you want to fit in?  Would cursing be wise in that situation?

A recent article argues that in circumstances like these, swearing is ok. We disagree. Let’s look at the rationale presented. 

1. Everybody’s doing it

The article argues everyone’s swearing these days. But when has popularity ever been a wise rationale for doing anything? Society as a whole is losing a sense of civility – more tension, more arguments, fewer compromises. It’s not a good thing.

2. Swearing is better than punching someone

Better, yes, but not much better. Swearing makes the person on the receiving end feel like he or she is being attacked – just verbally rather than physically. It makes people react defensively, not cooperatively. As an alternative, it’s best to pull the person aside and have an honest, polite conversation. He or she won’t feel attacked and you will preserve the connection.

3. Swearing boosts leadership

Leaders should be role models and not models of inappropriate language or behavior. If you want to be relatable, build connection through methods that are proven to be effective and that won’t risk offending others (we share many of these ways in a series on our blog series titled “100 Ways to Connect”).

4. Swearing empowers women

It doesn’t make women respected and it’s more likely to backfire by making women disliked. Again, if you want to break into the “boys’ club,” do it by connecting with them in other ways. If the guys are big sports fans in your workplace, you might take the time to read up and follow the teams they like so you can connect on a topic they’re interested in. (Nelson Mandela, for example, followed rugby to help him connect with the Robben Island prison warden and guards.) Taking the time to get to know your colleagues over lunch and looking for ways to help them will also facilitate connection.

The bottom line is that employee engagement is already dismal in today’s workplace with 70 percent of American employees — and 87 percent of employees globally — reporting they are not engaged. Swearing in the workplace will only contribute to the social entropy and disconnection that currently plagues the workplace. In the worst workplaces, people feel controlled or feel others are indifferent to them. Swearing is more common in these cultures. The best workplaces have cultures where people feel a sense of connection, community and unity. These employees and leaders care about people and care about producing excellent work and results. Swearing is inconsistent with caring about people.

The Quartz article cites a survey done by CareerBuilder in 2012 when it acknowledges that, “64% of employers thought less of an employee who repeatedly used curse words, and 57% were less likely to promote someone who swears in the office.”  The following survey results are also worth noting: “Most [employers] (81 percent) believe that the use of curse words brings the employee’s professionalism into question. Others are concerned with the lack of control (71 percent) and lack of maturity (68 percent) demonstrated by swearing at work, while 54 percent said swearing at work makes an employee appear less intelligent.”

Although we may occasionally slip, we should strive to act rationally and have sufficient self-control to hold our tongues when our emotions would have us do otherwise.

About the Authors 

Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners, speaks, teaches workshops and coaches leaders.  He is the author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson).

Follow Michael on his blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or on LinkedIn.

Katie Russell is a digital marketing specialist at E Pluribus Partners.

Photo source: Creator: stockimages. 

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