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Admin Pro Forum

Profanity in the office: Tolerable or a terror?

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Question: "I am an administrative assistant at a very large company and my cubicle is right outside the door of one of the directors. He happens to loudly use a particular common curse word whenever he's frustrated. I cringe every time I sense it coming. In most cases I try to scurry away from my desk so I don’t have to hear it, but sometimes I do get caught off guard. Do you have any suggestions for how I can deal with this, or approach the problem directly?" - Anonymous & Frustrated

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous May 31, 2016 at 6:02 pm

I was in a similar situation with a co-worker who sat just behind me. This person would curse, quietly scream, and make gestures at the computer. I tried to let it go. I tried headphones.
I finally decided that it wasn’t worth the anxiety level and went to talk with the boss to hopefully come up with some possible solutions. Honestly, I felt I wasn’t taken seriously about how disruptive and anxiety producing this behavior actually was. The boss didn’t feel it was appropriate to let me move to a different space and didn’t feel it was necessary to intervene. Direct communication only worked as a short term solution and I had to make up my mind about what was healthy for me. I chose to take new position.
I couldn’t believe how much stress that behavior was really causing me until I was working elsewhere.
I wish the best to the next employee.
Good luck!

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Victoria May 24, 2016 at 1:38 pm

I admit I regularly let the curse words fly. With that said, I have worked in some areas of my company where is wasn’t appreciated ;-) Someone politely mentioned it to me there had been some complaints and I made an effort to control myself. I took no offense as I realize this is uncomfortable for some people. I became very creative with my G versions of swear words.

Where I sit now we all frequently swear. But, whenever we hire someone new or someone new moves into our area I worn them about that and ask that they please speak up if it’s an issue.

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Karen May 24, 2016 at 12:25 pm

Since you work for a very large organization, is there any chance that you could be moved to a different part of the department, trade places with someone that is not sensitive to cursing?

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Cristine May 24, 2016 at 10:28 am

Being straightforward with the director, while uncomfortable, is the best first step. Create a mental script of the conversation. Something like, “I can always tell when you’re frustrated because you say the ‘F’ word. Do you mind if I close your door?” He may not be aware of what he’s doing but by commenting on it in a non-threatening way he may get the message. Also, closing his door every time he curses will reinforce the message.

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Cathy May 20, 2016 at 4:57 pm

I think it depends on the working relationship you have with that particular director. If it’s a comfortable one, you could poke your head in the door & ask if he’s having a bad day…that’s usually all I have to do with my boss. You might even mention, with a smile, that everyone around “heard that.” I don’t find it offensive at all, I don’t consider it harassment in any shape or form, & I don’t think it’s a hostile environment, as Debra suggested. If you don’t have a comfortable working relationship with him, do as “A” suggested, get earbuds.

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Debra May 20, 2016 at 4:39 pm

I had a similar issue with our Executive Director. I contacted my supervisor and told her of the inappropriate language and that it must stop as it was creating a hostile work environment. She spoke with the Exec privately, and things got better, but it slowly resumed. I spoke up again after a meeting we had on a different topic. I brought up the language issue and made it clear that I would file a grievance for harassment if the language didn’t improve. While I don’t like to resort to threats, it was effective and for the most part, the Exec did curb his language. You just have to put your foot down when it comes to this kind of harassment. It may not be intentional but it is upsetting. Good luck.

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Sara May 20, 2016 at 3:17 pm

I also agree with Mark that he may not be aware of what he’s doing. Something a touch less confrontational may be to mention that you notice his use of ‘the word’ and you understand his frustration, but perhaps he wouldn’t mind closing his door before getting to that level? Depending on how loud he is and how substantial the door is, this could have a two-fold effect: 1) He’s been made aware of his behavior and 2) even if he doesn’t want to curtail it, perhaps he’ll honor your wishes and at least close the door.

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A May 19, 2016 at 5:06 pm

My concern is what support you may or may not have since the director’s behavior is tolerated by the organization. You may have to do something like wear headphones. We have had some employees who did some pretty horrible things but although their behavior was reported, nothing was done. Mark is right, sometimes people are unaware of their behavior; however, there are those that are aware and don’t care how others might be affected. We have one of those that doesn’t care and her loud, obnoxious behavior was affecting my work, so I gave up on the headphones and asked to be moved. I am hoping you will have an opportunity where you will be able to mention this to him, if you have not built up a tolerance yet. Best to you.

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Laurie May 19, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Approach the individual privately – explain that you appreciate when others give you constructive feedback you would like to do this with him. At that point, let him know that you have become aware that when he is frustrated he uses language that is offensive to others in the office (and I’m sure is against HR policy). Explain that you aren’t sure if he is conscious of this and offer to help him break this habit. (Approaching the “habit” in this manner indicates that you would like to help, instead of an out & out criticism.) Offer to give him a signal when you sense him falling into his “habit” indicating that within 30 days the two of you can change the behavior to something good. He may need to replace this expression of frustration in another way and you can discuss that if he is open to it. Most people in a business environment will take constructive feedback well and by offering to assist – to signal him – you are letting him know that you are very aware of this “habit.” Depending how he takes the first part of the conversation, indicate that you wouldn’t want him to carry this behavior over when he is working with a client or his Manager. If that does no good, you can always go to Human Resources and explain your concern.

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Mark May 19, 2016 at 1:03 pm

If you want to approach it directly, you could always talk to him in private and say that this particular word offends you, and you would appreciate if he didn’t say this when you were around. It could be that he does not realize how often it happened. For example, I would periodically take my friends’ kids to movies or dinner to give the couple some alone time. One day after saying a very mild curse word like “damn” or something like that, one of the kids said I should have to pay 10 cents every time I said any curse word and share the total at the end of every month with them. I said they’d never have money, because I hardly ever cursed. But WOW, once I had to pay a dime every time I said something, I quickly realized that I did it a lot more than I realized. It may be the same thing with your boss, that he does it more often than he thinks he does. Of course, the non-direct way (if you are not comfortable talking about it) is to just accept it, realize it is not directed at you, and don’t let it bother you. Although I’ll toss out the minor curse words, I seldom ever say the major one, but when any of my countless friends who swear a lot say it, to me it’s a non-issue. I find it annoying but I’m not bothered by it.

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