Take Steps to Clean Up Workplace Profanity

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January 09, 2014

Vulgar or inappropriate language in the workplace is rising and along with it an increasing number of court filings and complaints to human resources departments and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

If your company doesn’t have a specific language code, take steps to include one in your employee handbook, along with policies against sexual harassment and discrimination. The use of inappropriate language can cost your company in lawsuits — not to mention the bad image your firm can get if employees use profanity around customers and suppliers.

Many people believe that a general coarsening of society — demonstrated by the rising use of formerly prohibited language on television, films and music — is partly to blame for the increase in vulgar language at work. Regardless of the cause, taking steps to avoid the pitfalls is clearly warranted.

When writing your policy, you need to ban two major categories of words:

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  • Slurs including all racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-based insults.
  • Slang including jargon used to describe sexual acts, body parts and bodily functions.

Simply prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination in your employee handbook is not sufficient. Although those policies may address vulgar or obscene language, many companies find that the guidelines aren’t broad enough to cover the potential problems linked to inappropriate language.

For example, when bad language is pervasive, it can create an uncomfortable, hostile or intimidating work environment, leaving your company open to accusations of harassment and discrimination, as well as expensive, time-consuming and needless litigation.

Take the proactive step of setting up a formal code that outlines both prohibited language and the disciplinary measures that will be taken. This can preempt potential lawsuits and strengthen your company’s position if legal action is taken.

But you must enforce the policy. Make it clear that offensive language won’t be tolerated. Failing to do so can make a company seem indifferent to employee concerns and less sympathetic to a jury if a complaint gets that far. Beyond the legal threat, claims of harassment or discrimination tend to require time and energy to investigate and often lead to negative publicity.

Free Speech?

A strong policy against the use of vulgar language has little down side in the private sector.

The First Amendment does limit actions taken by the government to restrict free speech, but it doesn’t come into play with private employers.

Although it's common to talk about First Amendment rights in the workplace, the Constitution doesn't address such situations. 

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