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You said what?!

“Cripes!” said William Brown as he and Jumble left the Brown’s lunch table in disgrace and went to meet the rest of the Outlaws.

Pretty mild language by today’s standards where it sometimes seems that swearing is the norm. We hear it everywhere, in the media and in the street and workplace. It’s a shame because it degrades the English language which is a beautiful and eloquent tool. Many use profanities as part of their everyday language and others as part of a serious outburst, which is usually a rare occasion. I confess my language went downhill last year after I endured a prolonged and toxic episode and hasn’t fully recovered yet though I am almost there. I really dislike swearing (in me and in others) and am generally reasonably moderate in my language. Indeed, on occasion I go the other way and can sound positively like a very strait laced maiden aunt from Tunbridge Wells.

The use of foul language is not seen as acceptable by the courts, even if it is the usual verbal currency in the workplace. As the judge said in the case of Horkulak v Cantor Fitzgerald International “ …. Just because bad language is the norm in your workplace it doesn’t have a sanitising effect.”

Bad language is potentially bad for business. Habitual bad language – even if it’s casual rather than bad-tempered, can lead to poor quality communication, complaints of bullying and damage your professional reputation.

Managers are expected to set a good example and adhere to high standards. They have a duty to create and maintain an appropriate working environment suitable for all employees and customers and this extends to the correct use of language which includes managing the language used between employees. Curiously it is the managers who don’t swear who are often seen as the most effective and worthy of respect by their teams. I once talked to a manager in a big northern bus garage, traditionally a workplace with fairly industrial language. He told me that he’d been the same as everyone else when he was a driver. But when he was promoted to a manager he decided to stop and had never raised his voice or sworn at work since that day. He was and remains one of the most respected managers in a very tough environment.

Those employees who have good relationships will tend not to complain about the others use of bad language. However just because the two employees engaged in a foul mouthed conversation find it acceptable does not mean anyone who overhears the conversation will also find it acceptable. So if such use of language tends to take place in your workplace, deal with it before it bites you in the wallet. Take offending employees to one side and have a private quiet word with them (make sure you take notes!).

If the matter continues carry out a thorough investigation. During this investigation discuss the incident and events leading up to the incident. It is important to understand all the circumstances investigating and determine whether there are any mitigating circumstances. Was there provocation? Were there other things going on in the employee’s life which may have contributed to the situation, for example, relationship problems, family health issues etc?

Often the use of bad language can be dealt with by having a quiet word with the employee. If it continues deal with it using the disciplinary process. Ignoring the use of bad language will not make the situation any better. It will only lead to an outburst of other employees who are fed up with the regular use of bad language.

If you want to clean up your act (or encourage employees to clean up theirs) you can train yourself. Here are three actions that might help change habits.

  • Imagine that someone is listening to you. It could be your grandmother or your innocent little son or daughter, just as long as it's someone you'd be ashamed to swear in front of.
  • Have a swear jar which is kept by another person. Put £1 in every time you swear.
  • Wear a rubber band round your wrist and ping it vigorously every time you catch yourself swearing. The thinking behind this is that your brain will come to associate swearing with pain and, over time, will cause you to mentally shy away from using bad words.
  • Use different words which are quite blameless to let off steam. It doesn’t sound very cool or macho to say “shoot” or “sugar” when you’re irritated (who cares if it’s cool or macho anyway?) but it’s considerably less offensive and can keep you out of hot water.

Here’ s to a sweet talking future!

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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