March 9, 2018

Can you sack someone who swears at work?

An employer’s guide to taking disciplinary action for foul language.

Swearing seems to be more acceptable than ever. But the workplace has been something of the final frontier for foul language. Is that changing? Or can you still take disciplinary action against an employee who swears?

 When it comes to swearing, your track record matters

It’s your past actions and the expectations you set that will determine whether or not it’s wise to sanction or even sack an employee for swearing in the workplace.

For instance, in one recent case, the Fair Work Commission found that an employer was justified in dismissing a worker who swore at his supervisor on the basis that he had been previously warned in writing not to use inappropriate language at work.

But the Commission went on to say it wouldn’t have let the employer get away with the dismissal if there had been evidence other employees had acted similarly and the employer hadn’t disciplined them. So the first lesson is be consistent in your disciplinary action.

A culture of swearing may make swearing okay

In another case, the Commission reinstated a worker who had been sacked for sending an abusive text message to a colleague during protected industrial action.

The Commission found that while there was a valid reason to terminate the worker’s employment, sacking him was a disproportionate response and was inconsistent with the approach taken in other similar incidents. In fact, evidence suggested there was a culture of workplace swearing, and other employees had not been subjected to such harsh treatment.

The Commission also noted that the worker was a solid performer and that sending the text message was a one-off incident, and somewhat out of character. In this case, the employer should have taken this into account too, before going straight to termination.

Why context is everything

Assessing the offensiveness of language is a subjective exercise and it’s impossible to take a one-size-fits-all approach.

In many workplaces, swearing is common, especially where the work is stressful. And, in some jobs, dropping clangers is simply just part of acceptable everyday conversation between colleagues.

So if you’re considering whether or not to take disciplinary action for swearing, you should always look at:

  • The interaction itself and why it occurred
  • Who’s there to hear it and how it affected them
  • How offensive the chosen words are
  • What or who the swearing is directed towards (there’s generally a distinction between cursing a machine that won’t work and swearing at someone)
  • Whether there’s a workplace swearing policy in place
  • Whether the employer tolerates swearing more generally, and
  • How the employer has dealt with previous incidents.

Put simply, if you want to encourage zero tolerance to swearing in your workplace, you’ll need a good policy, consistent consequences and most of all a management team who lead by example.

If on the other hand, you are happy to allow the odd profanity in the spirit of reasonable adults working together, then we’d suggest you provide your people with some clarity so that everyone can easily identify when someone’s crossed the line of decency. Regular training sessions can be very helpful in establishing the boundaries when it comes to workplace swearing.

It’s also important that the punishment fits the crime. So before you decide what to do about a specific incident it’s vital you look at the employee’s character, past behaviour and performance.

And finally…

Consistency counts when it comes to taking disciplinary action for workplace swearing. So if you’ve got a sticky (or sweary) situation on your hands or you’re concerned about your policy framework, culture, or what actions you should take, get in touch with us.

Oh, and if you’re interested in one CEO’s novel approach to stamping out workplace swearing, take a look at his company-wide ‘Try saying’ memo.

say hi to our author

Merilyn founded Catalina Consultants in 2012 on the belief that all organisations, regardless of size, should have access to top quality bespoke HR services. She enjoys working closely with her clients and believes that the best results are built on relationships of rapport, trust and authenticity. Growing up, Merilyn had her sight set on stardom and dreamed of becoming an actor. She also sang and played the piano, but ended up studying accounting and HR. Whilst she hasn’t won her Grammy just yet, she still loves a good karaoke night. Merilyn loves to travel with her family, with South Africa being one of her most memorable destinations.

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