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Any Answers: Swearing in the workplace

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Managing the inappropriate use of language is an issue which we often receive questions about in our Any Answers forum; responding to another query on the subject Sandra Beale, HR Consultant addresses the range of options from zero-tolerance to laissez-faire management.


According to research carried out by the Aziz Corporation, conducted earlier this year, 36% of managers accepted swearing as being part of the workplace culture.

Traditionally, swearing has been associated with male-dominated industries such as construction and warehousing as well as highly pressurised environments, however, there is a perception that it is becoming commonplace in other types of workplaces too.

Gordon Ramsay, who regularly appears on TV as a highly visible role model perpetuates the message that swearing in the workplace is ok. He defends this highly directive management style by professing it is needed to get the best out of his staff. As a highly successful businessman, a view can be taken that it works. However, individuals who have been on the receiving end of such a management style may take a different view.

Notably the high profile case of Horkulak v Cantor Fitzgerald which reached the law courts in 2003 in which Horkulak was awarded £1m damages after suffering verbal abuse from the Chief Executive.

Likewise being subjected to bad language from colleagues can have an adverse affect on some individuals as demonstrated by the Green v Deutsche Bank case. Green suffered several mental breakdowns as a direct result of the treatment she received from colleagues including verbal assaults and was awarded £800,000 to compensate for the past and future damage to her career as a company secretary.

This case demonstrates the mental and physical trauma the use of bad language in the workplace can cause. Although an extreme case, employees should be empowered to have the ability to say stop and to have managers and colleagues listen to them.

A workplace culture that promotes the use of swearing can have a knock on effect to the business particularly if clients and customers are offended by such behaviour possibly causing lost business and reduced profits. A company’s reputation may also be at stake giving out an impression of a lack of professionalism.

Swearing can be seen as an inability to articulate, which at any level should not be acceptable. The use of bad language is tantamount to bullying, harassment and verbal assault, which is covered by various pieces of legislation notably the Sex Discrimination Act and Human Rights Act. Swearing that is of a discriminatory nature is a definite no-no and can be subject to legal action being taken.

An additional piece of legislation is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which is primarily a criminal measure aimed at dealing with stalkers. However, it is very widely drafted and covers any “course of conduct” which alarms a person or causes them distress. This would include verbal harassment and bullying. The Act both imposes a criminal penalty and allows the court to award damages for harassment. Cases can be brought up to six years after the event.

It was used in the case of Majorowski v Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust where in 2005 the Court of Appeal decided that in cases of workplace harassment, an employer can be liable for conduct by an employee in the course of their employment. This means that if a manager bullies subordinates, there is a risk of a claim for damages even where there are no grounds for a discrimination claim and no physical or mental injury has been sustained. Majorowski won his case of “vicarious harassment.”

The boundaries and management of employee behaviour in this area should be defined by a bullying and harassment policy, a professional code of conduct and as a “belt and braces” approach the implementation of an additional aggression and violence at work policy.

All of these should incorporate the use of bad language and verbal assaults in the workplace and the consequences for ignoring company policy with use of the disciplinary policy. Swearing and the use of bad language is part of conduct and ultimately can be a reason for fair dismissal. The implementation of a swear box with proceeds going to charity may also be considered.

Ideally companies should adopt zero-tolerance with a top down approach led by senior management.

Further information about the author can be found at www.sjbealehrconsult.co.uk – Sandra Beale can be contacted at [email protected] and on T: 07762 771290.

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Annie Hayes

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