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Is it time to ban swearing in the workplace?

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in Firing,Human Resources

Goldman Sachs execs were publicly pummeled at a Senate hearing last spring over naughty words used in interoffice e-mails. So the company sent a new directive to employees this summer: No more profanity in e-mail.

The company has begun using screening software to identify dirty words—something many companies have already done. Media company Bloomberg scans e-mail messages for 70 hot-button words or phrases and sends users a pop-up message warning them not to send the e-mail. Citigroup sent a memo to employees noting that “recent headlines involving inappropriate e-mails are an important reminder to ‘think before writing, read before sending.’”

Banning swearing isn’t just a PR move. Employees who are targets of swearing by bosses—both the electronic and the “live” kind—can point to those words as evidence of a hostile work environment. 

Advice: So should you establish a zero-tolerance ban on any and all swearing in the workplace? It’s probably not realistic and you may set yourself up for discrimination claims if you clamp down on one employee’s slip-up but not another’s.

Instead, establish more general rules that say offensive language and other disrespectful conduct are not permitted, and violators will be subjected to the discipline policy. 

Avoid specific firing offenses

If you set rules on swearing, don’t try to list every offense for which workers could be fired. It may eliminate your at-will right to fire at your discretion. Instead, cite broad categories, such as insubordination.

Example: A few years ago, a UPS driver was fired on the spot after he broke into a profane tirade against his boss. He sued, arguing that swearing was not one of the seven reasons for immediate dismissal cited in UPS’ discipline policy. The appeals court sided with the worker, saying the terms were clearly spelled out and they didn’t include profanity. (Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers Union, Local 996 v. UPS)

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