Does your workplace need an employee civility code?

If it seems like you’re hearing more vulgar words and behavior spewing forth from employees these days, you’re not alone.

In fact, 38% of women say they’ve heard inappropriate sexual innuendoes and taunts in the workplace in the past year—up from 22% the year before, according to a study by Novations Group, a Boston consulting firm.

A best-selling book (The No A**hole Rule by Robert Sutton) brought this issue to national discussion recently. It described—using the TCA, or “Total Cost of A**holes” formula—how crude and boorish behavior wasn’t just an office nuisance, but a serious and costly threat to corporate success and employee health.

Some employers are fighting back. Examples: Google’s “Don’t be evil” maxim has inspired others to adopt this for internal and external corporate dealings. Southwest Airlines will “fire” passengers who demean their employees.

Advice: It may be time to draft a simple employee civility policy or code of conduct that is separate from your harassment policy.

Such a policy gives you more legal leverage to discipline employees who are equal-opportunity verbal abusers. It could protect you if you’re ever sued.

Recent case: The North Carolina Department of Transportation fired Gloria Woodard because she had a bad habit of talking down to other employees and getting in their faces with an attitude.

The agency had a long-established civility code that said employees were to treat others with the “respect due them as fellow workers. They shall be courteous, civil and respectful.”

Woodard, who is black, filed a lawsuit, saying her firing was due to race discrimination. But the court tossed out her case because she couldn’t point to any other employees who had been allowed to act disrespectfully. Her own discourteous behavior violated the workplace civility rule and was a legitimate reason for her discharge. (Woodard v. North Carolina Department of Transportation, WD NC)

Final note: Another good reason for a civility code: If you enforce the rules, you may cut the chances of creating a racially or sexually hostile environment.

Ideas from HR professionals to silence swearing at work

“If your company doesn’t have a policy that prohibits profanity, you might suggest one. If the language creates a hostile work environment, remind the offenders of your harassment policy.” — C.T.

“I’ve always found the straightforward approach is best. Simply walk up to the (offenders) and explain that their language could be considered offensive and cannot be tolerated in the workplace.” — Ed

“Combine education and fun. Explain to employees why it isn’t acceptable. Then do something actress Loretta Young used to do on the set of her TV show: She set up a ‘cuss box.’ Anyone caught cussing had to drop in a quarter. You can donate the money to charity.” — Peggy

“This is definitely a problem. I had a supervisor who was the main culprit. I spoke to him privately, but that didn’t work. Eventually, the senior VP spoke to everyone and things improved.” — M.J.J.