Should you tolerate foul-mouthed co-workers? — Business Management Daily: Free Reports on Human Resources, Employment Law, Office Management, Office Communication, Office Technology and Small Business Tax Business Management Daily
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Should you tolerate foul-mouthed co-workers?

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in Your Office Coach

Question: "How do you handle a co-worker who constantly uses foul language in a professional office?  I’ve hinted to her that I don’t like it, but that did no good. I talked with her boss and the human resources manager, but they seem to view me as a tattletale. Do I just have to learn to live with the four-letter words?" — Offended

Marie's Answer: As a peer, you can’t order your uncouth colleague to stop swearing, and her boss apparently doesn’t care. So you need to find a different strategy. Here’s what to do:

•    Group action usually has more impact than an individual complaint. If others share your concern, return with them to HR and ask for enforcement of some reasonable language guidelines. 

•    However, if you are the only one upset, then you and your co-workers have different standards. Curses can range from mild exclamations, like "damn" or "hell" to the more truly colorful expletives. People vary greatly in what they find offensive.

•    If you lack support from either management or colleagues, your only hope is to ask for a personal favor. Hinting hasn’t worked, so consider a more direct approach. 

•    To reduce defensiveness, present a request instead of a criticism.  For example: “I know you may find this silly, but four-letter words make me very uncomfortable. They don’t bother everyone, but they really do bother me. I would greatly appreciate it if you could tone down the language when I’m around.” 

If you say this in a friendly manner, keeping the focus on your own feelings, your cursing colleague might just surprise you by cleaning up her act.

For more Office Coach suggestions on resolving workplace issues, check out The Best Way to Complain about Co-workers.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

NET NET May 17, 2016 at 12:56 pm

I am an Administrative Assistant in a very large company and have a director level gentleman, that my cubicle is right outside his door. Whom uses the GD word when he seems to be frustrated. I cringe every time I hear him start to blow and make his usual frustrating sounds before he drops the bomb. Which in most cases I try to scurry away from my desk so that I don’t have to hear it. But sometimes I do get caught off guard. Do you have any suggestions of how I can approach this. PLEASE HELP!!


Mohan M Prasad November 5, 2009 at 3:45 am

Just say”Jesus”

Very interesting!. I had a boss who used the four letter word whenever he wanted to compliment the team member.

Most times such personalities are not even aware of the usage of foul language and their spontaneity is neutral to the context of time and situation. Gender sensitivity is the last thing in their mind when they are in the full flow of their foul literature.

Here the intent of the usage is more important than the construct of their communication style.

You may try saying ‘Jesus’ every time she uses a foul language and tell her how many times you repeated ‘Jesus ‘during any day. The best way is to create a peer pressure to change the term of reference rather than preferring a complaint.

On a lighter vein, those which cannot be cured are to be endured. Have patience have pity and repeatedly bring to her notice your ‘Jesus’.

All the best

Mohan M prasad


Kathi February 16, 2009 at 11:04 am

Our organization finds the extreme foul language, e.g., the “f” bomb, the inappropriate “b” word, absolutely unacceptable. This has come from the top down. As the corporate trainer, I insure each employee who receives harassment training that this is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated. HR should be supportive of this stand. Sorry you have to work in an environment that is so disrespectful.


Jones February 12, 2009 at 10:20 am

I find this issue to be very problematic. Unfortunately, if a standard is not set by management and 9 times out of 10 it is managment using the language then you have to dea. I had a supervisor who use to curse and I approached him nicely and said that I wish that he would not speak that way to me as I do not speak that way to him. He was shocked and taken a little off guard. He apoligized, although he did not stop swearing, he stopped swearing to me. Later that month, his boss called a meeting with our department. Apparently another area complained about the swearing/cursing that they were hearing from our dept. Therefore, everyone was asked to be careful and they decided to create a swearing jar… anytime some curses they have to drop a quarter. Sounds silly , but it certainly changed the atmosphere.


Heather February 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by foul, “colorful” language. I had the same situation at a previous job and nothing helped. Even customers would complain to no avail. So I found another job. Hopefully you can resolve the problem by discussing it with the offender. Good luck!


Dona Thornton February 11, 2009 at 3:05 pm

When I first started my job as the Exec. Asst. at a non-profit organization, several people cursed uncontrollably. When it occurred I would simply say “Jane, please don’t say that.” Often they did not realize what they had said. Within 2 years, the cursing has almost completely ceased.


Rita February 11, 2009 at 2:53 pm

I’m surprised that HR would do nothing. Doesn’t this amount to harrassment? At the very least, the co-worker’s cursing becomes an intolerable workplace issue. I agree that you should speak to your co-worker again, and if that doesn’t work, gather support and go back to HR. If they understand your level of discomfort, they should be able to spot the “lawsuit potential” in the situation.


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