Woman shouting symbols

Cursing in the Workplace: Is it Legal?

by Jim Guttmann, on June 21, 2016
Although many people may be thoroughly upset with the use of profanity and rude behavior in the workplace, there are no employment laws that require people to be respectful and polite to each other. Contrary to popular belief, anti-discrimination statutes governing hostile work environment are not general civility codes. The law governs what constitutes illegal activity or behavior; it does not dictate what is appropriate or professional in the workplace.

Believe it or not, in certain situations and industries some view cursing as a positive thing. These individuals believe that cursing by supervisors or employees shows that they are passionate about their work or that the use of foul language adds needed emphasis and motivation to others. When this occurs, these individuals may be viewed as “equal opportunity harassers”. In other words, others may be told to learn to deal with a person as having a “potty mouth” around everyone.

So, should we conclude that there is nothing wrong with cursing? Not so fast! If it is viewed that the cursing is specifically directed toward an individual or group of individuals by virtue of their gender, age, race, national origin, religion, disability status or veteran status, it could be perceived as discrimination or harassment and represent the start of an illegal hostile work environment. Therefore, it’s a definite problem if a clear connection can be made between hostile language and the perceived motives of a harasser against a category of person(s) that are protected by law.

As an employer, would you want to take the chance of prevailing in court based on an “equal opportunity harasser” defense? This argument takes the position that since everyone is treated in an equally reprehensible manner without regard to any protected characteristics, no discrimination is occurring. There is no litmus test to go by, so a company culture in which inappropriate language such as unwanted, deliberate, repeated, unsolicited profanity, cussing, swearing, vulgar, insulting, abusive or crude language is the norm may place the employer at considerable risk.

Beyond the potential legal risks, I believe it is unwise for a business to disregard the impact that cursing may have on lost work time, decreased work effort, employee turnover and potential violence. Very often, a verbal attack sparks a physical response when the insults involve profanity. According to James V. O’Connor, President of the Cuss Control Academy in Northbrook, Illinois (yes, it really does exist), “Chronic cursers tend to be complainers, and their bad attitude can be infectious. It damages morale, teamwork and productivity.” Mr. Connor adds that “A manager with a foul mouth intimidates employees rather than inspires them. He or she also sets a bad example and jeopardizes the respect and admiration he needs for a loyal work force. His behavior shows a lack of character and emotional control, qualities employees expect from an employer”.

To borrow and shamelessly embellish upon a line from Shakespeare: To curse or not to curse; that is the question. What is your answer?
Jim Guttmann

As a LandrumHR Senior Human Resources Manager, Jim is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and has over 30 years of HR generalist experience. He holds a Masters in Business Administration from Florida State University and is an active member of the Raleigh-Wake Human Resources Management Association in North Carolina. Jim is also certified as a County Mediator in the State of Florida and in the administration of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Jim is also very involved in his church community and is commissioned as Stephen Ministry Leader.

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