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What the &#@!? Watch your language at work

A new documentary is out exploring the colorful use of the F-word. Despite the U.S. constitutional right of free speech, not every workplace is inclined to tolerate language which, like the F-word, is generally considered crude.
Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
/ Source: contributor

A new documentary that takes an affectionate and colorful look at the world’s most notorious four-letter expletive – the film’s title is that same F-word, which the media has decorously been referring to as “f---” – spends a fair amount of its running time examining the issue of free speech.

But there’s one topic that the film, which shares the opinions of a cross-section of media types, including Ice-T, Janeane Garofalo, Judith “Miss Manners” Martin and Pat Boone, doesn’t address.    

Here’s a clue.

What’s the other four letter word that may not provide a fertile ground for the F-word and others of its ilk?


That’s right. Despite the U.S. constitutional right of free speech, not every workplace is inclined to tolerate language which, like the F-word, is generally considered blue, crude, raw, rude, cursing, profane or bawdy.

“A lot of people make that mistake and think they can talk any which way” at work, says Carl Jaskolski, an assistant profession of human resources in the M.B.A. program at Concordia University in Wisconsin. And just because people use certain undesirable words in an upbeat way – an example would be the popular use of the F-word as an adjective, such as when one describes an object as “f***ing awesome” – it doesn’t get them off the hook in a 9-to-5. “It may not be offensive in the context of how the speaker is saying it, but it’s about how I’m hearing it,” he says.

Jaskolski believes one reason for workplace potty mouths – he says the worst offenders are often found in management positions, the media and in communication and service industries – is that, over time, people simply have gotten used to using that type of speech. “Individuals have been conditioned to that language, meaning they’ve been living in households or worked in environments where that language was used.” He described one of his students, a police officer who, as part of a project, commented to fellow officers when they spoke crudely. The colleagues’ response, says Jaskolski, tended to be “I said that?” Not everyone is unaware, however.

Jaskolski describes a case involving two female workers in a factory setting in Wisconsin in 2001 who received a payout of $180,000 from their company, when they filed with the EEOC. The complaint? Another female co-worker used foul language – “attacking and offensive words,” he says – directed at the other two women, which affected the pair’s morale. The woman who did the cursing stayed on – the company described what happened at “shop talk.”

The most common situation is one in which an employee complains about someone else’s bad language in the workplace and then loses his or her job,” says Anne Golden, an employment attorney and partner in Outten and Golden in New York, a firm that represents employees or partners, not companies. The reason for termination is generally because the person using the bad language is the complainer’s superior. “Your employer has to stand behind the superior,” she says. “The boss is using the power the company gave him. And that means, if he is breaking any laws or other duty to the employees, the company is too. So, they have to take his side.”

Golden notes that, after the subordinate is fired, which she says frequently happens, the company may turn to the boss and chide him for causing the loss of a good employee and discipline that supervisor in other ways.

Sometimes, the person who has been fired does have a legal case against the supervisor, she says. For example, the boss might have used offensive language in a more legally delicate age, sexual, racial or religious context. “If the person can show it was for an unlawful reason they were being abused, they may have a claim,” Golden says.

Golden is not seeing a greater number complaints regarding the use of foul language at work but, she says, “it may be it’s increasing and people’s tolerance is also increasing.” She notes that certain environments – like trading desks, “where you have to put on hip boots to wade through the testosterone,” or in traditionally male jobs, such as construction, that women are now trying to enter – may be more ripe for these incidents than others.

Golden believes that often the easiest way to address this type of workplace issue – if the language is simply offensive but no illegal act is being committed – is for the offended employee to leave, find a more hospitable environment “and put it behind you.”

James V. O’Connor, a commentator in the film and also the author of “Cuss Control,” believes that increased toleration is the cause of more bad language used in the workplace. And, what’s worse, the offensiveness is escalating. “’Damn’ and “hell’ are pretty weak these days,” he says. “ ‘F***ing’ is still a big one, and that’s why the documentary focused on this one word, because the other words are getting pretty tame.”

O’Connor also cites the confusion in many people’s minds between First Amendment rights and “civility, manners and courtesy.” “You have a right to belch, but social convention says you shouldn’t do it,” he said. “To say you have the freedom to do it is mixing up freedom with manners and respect for others.” But he doesn’t let employers off the hook, either. “A lot of companies that have policies write them up and pass them around and they get stuck in a drawer,” O’Conner says. “No one enforces them.”

For Jaskolski, it comes down to professionalism. “What has disturbed me is we are so bent on professional dress and how people look,” he says. “We’re so concerned about the visual but not concerned about the auditory.” To do his part to help uncondition people from their bad language, Jaskolski sells a “language in the workplace” policy to employers, and which he describes at his web site

Jaskolski believes that, when it comes to eradicating foul language in the workplace, it’s best to nip it in the bud. Many employers, he says, never addressed the issue in the beginning. At the early stage, it’s like two people on their best behavior when starting to date. But, employees begin to feel a lot more at ease with looser speech after their probation period ends and they feel their jobs are more or less guaranteed.

Jaskolski’s advice is for managers to call meeting stating a new no-tolerance policy, and request that employees simply ask the offending individual to cease speaking that way. It helps if there are consequences to non-compliance, such as the loss of one’s job, he says.

Not all requests to cease foul language are met with hostility, Jaskolski points out. “I’ve had to point it out to students, and they thanked me,” he says. “They didn’t realize that’s how they talked.”