Ethics Center: Reputation Management

Obscenity Rules: Time to Rescue Workplace Civility?

Transparency is our thing at the National Ethics Association. But some gestures and words are better left unexpressed. Consider the case of Johnny Manziel, AKA “Johnny Football.”

During a recent Monday Night Football telecast, the rookie Cleveland Brown Quarterback lost his cool. After persistent taunts from his opponents (the Washington Redskins), he flipped his middle finger at them. Problem was, the camera beamed the gesture to millions watching at home.

Although Manziel is well known for bad-boy antics, his coach was not pleased. “It does not sit well,” Mike Pettine told the Boston Globe. ‘It’s disappointing, because what we talk about is being poised and being focused . . .  . That’s a big part of all football players, especially the quarterback.” Shortly after the incident, Pettine named Brian Hoyer his starting quarterback.

Not only is obscene speech increasingly common in professional sports, it’s becoming the new normal in the American workplace. But business owners committed to ethics and quality should take a stand against it. By committing themselves to respectful discourse, they will become known as high-quality companies. Who wouldn’t want that distinction?

Unfortunately, many firms don’t, especially those in high-pressure industries such as investment banking and entertainment.  Consider the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, whose actors launched 506 f-bombs during its 180-minute running time—nearly 3 per minute! We can only hope the film exaggerates reality.

Obscenity isn’t just the lingua franca of Wall Street. It’s also frequently heard in corporate boardrooms. T-Mobile CEO John Legere used the f-word to describe his competitors at AT&T and Verizon. Former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz threatened her team with being dropkicked to f-----g Mars if they leaked information to the press. Even Donald Trump, a potential Republican Party presidential candidate, went on a swearing tirade during a Las Vegas political speech. And let’s not forget President Obama’s desire to kick some you-know-what over the BP oil spill.

What’s the big deal? Obscene conduct simply reflects today’s culture, right? People in general are less polite; language and behavior are getting coarser; and the penalties for being profane have seemingly vanished. As a business owner or professional, why not just swear with the best of them? And why not believe the experts who defend swearing as a useful coping mechanism for high-stress times?

Clearly, the arguments FOR swearing can be persuasive. Scientists say it stimulates the brain to think more creatively and makes it a more effective problem-solving tool. What’s more, swearing at a boss, in particular, can be a useful way to move up the corporate ladder. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, Forbes magazine suggests swearing is an excellent way to get a boss’s attention, to gain respect by going toe-to-toe, and to communicate a strong desire to be valued. Sounds plausible, but we wouldn’t recommend trying it in the real world. 

Plus, experts say cursing might help leaders to lead. How? By encourageing employees to view them as more human and approachable than your average overlord.

Some argue swearing even helps women smash the glass ceiling by helping them assert themselves in male-dominated networks. Again, good luck with that in reality, ladies.

But these benefits are offset by some powerful disadvantages. According to a recent Skillbuilder.com survey, sixty-four percent of employers said they’d think less of an employee who repeatedly used curse words, and 57 percent said they’d be less likely to promote someone who swore in the office.

In addition to those problems, James V. O’Connor of the Cuss Control Academy says swearing imposes a significant personal penalty. For one thing, it makes colleagues unpleasant to be with. It shows they lack self-control or have a bad attitude. And it makes them come across as immature, ignorant, and lacking in character. Add to those disadvantages the exacerbation of incivility and the corruption of the English language and you’ve got a pretty strong case against blue language at work.

But perhaps the biggest negative argument is the legal one. Repeated swearing, along with ridicule or insults, can produce a so-called “hostile workplace.” When unprofessional conduct is directed at a member of a protected class such as women, minorities, or members of various religions, the targets of such behavior may have grounds to sue under federal and state antidiscrimination laws.

How do you balance the plusses and minuses of swearing at work? If you run your own business, then the scale definitely tilts negative. Leaders who allow their people to speak or act crudely run the risk of their company being perceived as unprofessional at best or unhinged at worst. Potential customers will not react kindly to such conduct, nor will job candidates or potential funders. And the danger of being sued poses too large a risk to tolerate unchecked profanity.

Acknowledging the serious downsides of swearing is just the beginning, however. You now have to take action to prevent it. According to DCR Workforce, a provider of contingent workforce solutions, employers should: 

  • define appropriate use of language in their sexual harassment and discrimination policies.

  • prohibit all racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-based slurs, as well as slang that describes sexual acts, body parts, and bodily functions.

  • impose disciplinary measures against employees who break the language rules.

  • train supervisors and employees on language-use expectations and make sure supervisors consistently enforce company policy.

Common-sense HR standards will not only create a workplace culture rooted in respect, they will also allow a company to grow and maintain a sterling professional reputation, both off and online. With most companies providing commodity-type products and services, an exemplary reputation can quickly differentiate the winners from the also-rans in a competitive marketplace.

So far we’ve discussed how a company should react to the profanity trend. But individual leaders must also do their part to promote a curse-free workplace. How? By recognizing they are role models for their people. As such, they must set an appropriate benchmark by elevating how they speak (and write) to their direct reports, peers, and customers. If they don’t adhere to professional standards, why should anyone else?

Bottom line: highly paid football players may get away with crude gestures and words. But today’s business leaders no longer have that luxury. High-profile quarterbacks might get benched for swearing, but executives and entrepreneurs run the risk of damaging their companies and careers when they do so. Who the *#@! needs that?

For more information on ethical business practices, please visit the National Ethics Association's Ethics Center.