Cursing on the Job

Foul Language Can Impact Your Career Path

While the use of foul language seems to be more widely accepted in many social circles today, the use of profane language in the workplace – particularly in a healthcare setting where stress levels are often high for patients, families and providers alike – is rarely appropriate. And when an ascending career is part of the swearer’s intentions, unbridled cursing may in fact insert a “Dead End” sign along your path. Unchecked cursing is a red-flag indicator of stress, frustration, anger and lack of control – all detrimental to healthcare excellence.

That said, providers who do let go a salty phrase from time to time may be protected against harsh discipline, thanks to it falling under a “protected activity” as defined by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The rule applies to both union and non-union workplaces but, before you let go, be sure to know not only your rights, but the policies in place within your organization as swearing in some circumstances can also be perceived as work-place harassment.

‘Benefits’ of Cursing

According to Psychology Today there are actually quite a few benefits to swearing including pain relief, humor and peer and social bonding as foul language can increase camaraderie among employees. Psychotherapist Jessica Cashman told, “Because [cursing] is such an emotive form of language, it can be a positive thing if used sparingly, strategically and appropriately.” Cashman further suggested that “…swearing is an integral part of human communication and should not be dismissed as inappropriate in all professional situations.”

Some individuals may use profanity with a purpose in mind — to achieve dominance, like an alpha dog emerging in a pack, or a male gorilla beating its chest or, for example, a veteran nurse on a team with new grads. Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and an authority on cursing, told CNBC that swearing is most often seen in extroverted, Type A personalities. The leaders of tomorrow may well be the cursers of today.

But, It Also Matters What You Say

However, that should not be perceived as a license to swear continually. An occasional outburst is something quite different from ongoing profanity and a great deal of subjectivity can come into play when employers consider whether or not foul-mouthed workers have crossed the line of acceptability and require discipline, up to and including firing. If for example, the language promotes a hostile workplace, is race-, gender- or ethnic-based; is used as a form of intimidation or bullying; is specifically offensive to certain religious groups; is damaging to the reputation of the facility; or frustrates the efforts of co-workers in the course of their job, then NLRA protections may not be enforceable.

Additionally, a 2012 study conducted by revealed that 81% of employers surveyed actually believed swearing at work “brings an employee’s professionalism into question.” When considering disciplinary actions, employers generally consider if there is a standing, implemented and well-publicized “no swearing” policy, if the swearing is general in nature and not directed toward an individual or specific group, and how incendiary the words used are (for example, “Damn!” might be considered acceptable whereas other four-letter words might be highly-offensive.)

So while cursing in the workplace might make you feel better in-the-moment, it can unfortunately have long-lasting negative effects as you attempt to climb the career ladder. If you really have to blow off steam on the job, be sure to know your audience and the rules and when necessary, consider running out to your car before launching into a tirade. Keeping the vitriol between you and the steering wheel could very well help you stay on course for success. 

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