Take This Job and $%^# It?

Cursing at work may be frowned upon, but there are also benefits.


June 2, 2008— -- In an age of widespread layoffs, many might be more inclined to play it safe by keeping their language clean in the workplace. But that doesn't include Leyland Streiff.

Streiff's expletive of choice is a popular one — the four-letter word that begins with "F" — and the advertising account manager said he uses it in the office about 20 times a day. He's not worried about his foul mouth endangering his career.

"I don't see any sort of problem with it, especially in a fast-paced work environment," said Streiff, who lives in New York. Swearing, he added, can help diffuse tension and create "more of a fun atmosphere."

David Love, an operations manager at a sauce and gravy manufacturing company in Illinois, sees it differently.

"I think there is no such thing as harmless swearing," he said. His company, Custom Culinary, this year hosted a speaker who lectured managers on the consequences of swearing on the job. The presentation was scheduled after an employee complained about a superior's use of foul language.

"People understood the priority we put on respecting each other, and language we use with one another is a big part of that respect," Love said.

If Streiff and Love represent black and white in the workplace language debate, the research on on-the-job swearing takes on a dark shade of gray. A March survey of 2,025 American executives by the job search Web site TheLadders.com found that more than 81 percent said it was unacceptable to work alongside a foul-mouthed colleague. Six percent said they had fired an employee for swearing.

But a 2007 report by researchers in the U.K. concluded that uttering expletives actually can benefit a work environment. In "Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture: When Anti-Social Becomes Social and Incivility Is Acceptable," Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins write that swearing may be part of a "lively, boisterous communication style" that creates solidarity among employees.

The report, which included results from a case study of a small British retail business, also concluded that swearing could relieve stress.

"As long as the employees are swearing, they may not be happy, but they are coping," the report said.

In an interview with ABC News, Baruch, a professor of management at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, said that managers should address swearing in the workplace when it offends others, alienates customers or amounts to harassment, such as when a superior uses abusive language against an employee. But otherwise Baruch, who said that he personally deplores foul language, said that employers should use discretion in attempting to curb swearing.

"Managers should realize that there are different cultures within the organization, and it may not be the best to try and impose a standard on language," he said. "Sometimes the best way to manage people is to know when to look the other way."

Baruch's research notwithstanding, two career experts who spoke with ABC said that, generally, swearing in the workplace is inadvisable.

Michelle Goodman, the author of "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and a career columnist for ABCNEWS.com, said that using foul language at work is the linguistic equivalent of wearing sweatpants to the office.

"Even at the most casual companies where you can go to work in a T-shirt or ratty jeans, you still wouldn't go in your pajamas or your sweatpants. That's just a line that you draw," she said. "A workplace can be casual, but it's still not happy hour with your friends."

An employee who swears during a difficult situation — for instance, when a key client threatens to pull his or her account — may be viewed as "a hothead" who can't stay cool under pressure.

When an employee uses swear words while speaking with a superior, that could be construed as insubordination, said Richard V. Denenberg.

Denenberg, the author of "The Violence-Prone Workplace: A New Approach to Dealing With Hostile, Threatening, and Uncivil Behavior," said employees who work around a foul-mouthed colleague may find themselves distracted from their work.

But he conceded that there are certain workplaces and workplace cultures where foul language is more acceptable than others.

"Mining gravel or working in a warehouse — heavy outdoor work — you'll probably find it's more common because it's a less refined setting," he said.

But some white-collar workers said that their offices aren't immune either. Streiff said that swearing is common in the advertising industry, where stress-laden deadlines and "liberal" work environments abound.

Michael Stutts, a former investment banker in Chicago, said that rampant foul language in the world of finance makes financial institutions look like frat houses.

"People try to motivate by using pretty harsh language," he said.

Stutts now attends business school and says that, after he graduates, he plans to work in consulting — a field where he says the language is "much more polished."

He won't miss the cussing of his old job, even the occasional kind.

"If you use it sparingly, it can be effective in putting fear into people," he said, "but I wouldn't say it's necessarily healthy."

Fighting your own workplace swearing habit might take a little bit of help.

James O'Connor, the lecturer who addressed workplace swearing at Custom Culinary earlier this year, has some strategies to help people cut down on the cussing, including expanding vocabulary and pretending "that your sweet little grandmother or your young daughter is always next to you."

"If you can control your swearing, you'll also be controlling your emotions," he said. "You can still get angry, you can still get upset, but you're not going to intensify it."

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