How to avoid a sh*tstorm

Amanda Woodard


written on July 28, 2017

Where is the line when it comes to workplace swearing?

The foul-mouthed tirade from Donald Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, surprised even hardened journalists, raised on a diet of profanity in media newsrooms.

Scaramucci or ‘The Mooch’ as he is known, told journalist for the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza,  that the Chief of Staff at the White House, Reince Priebus was a “f**king paranoid schizophrenic” who will be asked to resign. And that his approach to hiring and firing “is not like Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, because “I’m not trying to suck my own cock”.

Clearly angry, Scaramucci let rip about leaks to the press, (specifically about a White House dinner he, the first lady, Sean Hannity and former Fox News Executive Bill Shime had with president Trump), which he thought was evidence of a plot to undermine him.

Whatever the trigger, further damage has been done to the reputation of the President and the US around the world if not at home.

(UPDATE: Scaramucci has since been fired by President Trump, with a spokesman saying “The President certainly felt Anthony’s comments were inappropriate for a person in that position”.)

In the context of work and employee relations, it raises the question: when is the line crossed when using expletives? After all, Australians have a reputation for liberally sprinkling their vocabulary with colourful language, often to give emphasis to points that are being made.

Michael Adams, Professor of English language and literature at Indiana University, is the author of In Praise of Profanity. In an interview with the ABC, he described “moments in life where you reach a point of existential frustration, everything has gone wrong at once, and you search around for other words, but none will suit the occasion quite as well as a nice profanity”. A sentiment with which many Australians will identify, I’m sure.

John Macy, FAHRI Life member and Founder and Managing Director, Competitive Edge Technology, says that context is everything.

“Sometimes it comes across as funny and sometimes it comes across as plain rude. It’s the way in which it is delivered. If it is spoken in an intimidating way, then it amounts to bullying and then there isn’t much of a line to draw between getting a point across and profanity,” says Macy.

He believes that using foul language in this way in the workplace is unacceptable no matter whether it is at the C-suite level or at junior level. “And when men decide to use profanity in front of women, it is entirely inappropriate,” adds Macy.

But women aren’t free of guilt. However many feminists have attempted to reclaim the word ‘bitch’ (“bad bitch”, “bitchin’” etc), it’s still seen as derogatory when spoken by either sex.

(Find out how other HR professionals feel about workplace swearing at Australia’s largest HR event – the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Sydney 21−23 August. Registration closes 11 August.)

Where does the law stand?

There have been plenty of cases of employees being sacked for swearing at colleagues (Scaramucci now amongst them), but the law is far from clear cut on the issue. Talking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Edward Mallett, employment law barrister and founder of consultancy Employsure, says when the Fair Work Commission views complaints about swearing in the office, it looks at issues such as what the workplace is like and whether the conduct has been reasonable in the context of the workplace.

“The rule of thumb is that what equals serious misconduct in one place doesn’t equal serious misconduct in all places,” he says. “You have to understand the particular culture of the business before you can make a call.”

Simon Billing, a partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, writing in employment law matters, has some key takeaways from recent legal cases that relate to swearing in the workplace:

  1. Prior warnings and repeated swearing at a person will give weight to an employer’s decision to dismiss an employee for swearing.
  2. Even when swearing is part of a workplace’s culture, it does not excuse aggressive and malicious behaviour directed at another person.
  3. One isolated incident is unlikely to warrant dismissal.
  4. It’s all about context, such as whether the conduct undermined a supervisor’s authority in front of other employees and what the workplace culture is like.
  5. Keep a level head and be fair.
  6. Make sure you consider any specific factors relating to the ‘offending’ employee and all the circumstances of the matter before proceeding to the – possibly extreme – step of dismissal.


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6 thoughts on “How to avoid a sh*tstorm

  1. Mr Macy – please explain why “… when men decide to use profanity in front of women, it is entirely inappropriate”

    I don’t understand why someone’s gender makes a difference.

  2. A transition has taken place both in work environments and society in general. As a post-war baby boomer it was reinforced to me that there is a ‘time and place’ for certain language. What occurs in the locker room at half-time (usually by the coach) is not the type of language that would be encouraged in other contexts. Moreover, it wasn’t all that long ago the late Graham Kennedy was sanctioned for saying “faaaaark faaaark” as a poor imitation to that of a crow with an entirely different intent. These were also times that such language wast not approved or socially acceptable to use expletives in the front of ladies (and children). It was considered inappropriate at best, or offensive at worst. Today use of the “f” work and even the “c” work is not all that uncommon in movies and on television. My personal view is that this is sad deterioration of the richness of the English language. Although comedian Billy Connely might suggest otherwise.

    I completely understand the comment from Kathryn Cole in suggesting that one’s gender should not make a difference. While someone refraining from the use of profanities in front one women is reminiscent of the days of post-war chivalry. In today’s society, it is arguably valid to suggest if “it isn’t appropriate in front of women”, it should also not be appropriate in front of men”. Strong, colourful or robust language (a euphemism for swearing) is probably going to increase across workplace environments and is part of a changing tolerance within society – just don’t use it at your boss (especially after prior warnings) otherwise you will become “disingenuously disenfranchised” or using the vernacular… (a word starting with “f” -ed) (with attribution to Billy Connely)

  3. I just think that there are so many lovely words in the English language that can be used instead of abusive swear words. Using words that are just, fair and professional in the workplace has more effect than swear words. Whatever happened
    to ‘protocol and etiquette’? I have found that speaking civilly to each other in a kinder tone gets more done with less stress and besides it results in a more harmonious working environment for everyone!

    1. Well spoken!

      Professionalism is a composite of dress, grooming AND language. Otherwise, why have workplace standards?

      Since when did we start buying the everyone-else-is-doing-it excuse?

      “I simply do not think that yelling, swearing, threatening or belittling will get you to the place you want to be faster than kindness, understanding, patience and a little willingness to compromise.”
      — Rachel Nichols

  4. There is no one rule for this – it depends on company culture, including workforce DNA, leadership behaviours, colleague / peer receptiveness to swearing… and about fifty other factors.

    I believe we need to be looking inwards, not outwards for anything related to code of conduct. It should be specific to the organisation, their values and how they want their employees to behave / how the employees want to behave.

    We have a pretty expletive-friendly office, but we all know not to swear in front of a client or in a malicious way – we’re adults, not children that need to be monitored.

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