As an executive at Autodesk Inc., Carol Bartz swore like a sailor and won the love of staffers. But as Yahoo Inc. CEO, her fellow directors discouraged swearing. Bartz herself admits wishing she hadn’t said the F-word at Yahoo.
Does swearing energize employees and demonstrate passion? Or does it cast you as out-of-control and unprofessional?
Generally, the answer is the latter, say executive coaches and recruiters. But it depends. Used at the right time, with the right crowd and in the right setting, profanity can put a fine point on things. A choice curse word can motivate a team, break the tension or persuade an audience.
Brent Sherwin, a senior vice president of a Schwan Food Co. unit, deployed one swear word at the very end of his presentation at a Schwan national sales meeting. To rally employees, he asked them to flippin’ kick the tails of the competition—only in more colorful terms. “Even senior executives stood up and applauded,” he says.
“Companies increasingly prefer authentic leaders,” says succession-planning expert Jeffrey Cohn. “Using colorful language can play to your advantage—as long as you also demonstrate empathy and good business judgment.”
Michael Dubin, founder of e-commerce startup Dollar Shave Club, demonstrates the advice. In his online video, he deploys the F-word, but bleeps it out. It communicates intensity without offending. When he’s pitching to venture-capital firms, however, he never swears.
In some industries, swearing may be de rigueur. Even so, a wise leader knows when to play it safe.
For example, executive recruiter Jane Howze recalls the story of a chief financial officer in the hospitality industry who used profane terms to describe his boss “within 10 minutes of meeting me. I said, ‘This guy has no emotional intelligence.’”
— Adapted from “A Curse Upon Your Career,” Joann S. Lublin, The Wall Street Journal.