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Watch your language – for the most part

Swearing in the workplace can sometimes have its place

By Todd Humber

I’m not a prude. But I just can’t bring myself to swear openly in the workplace.

Have I muttered expletives under my breath? Of course. Have I let an occasional F-bomb drop in my office — perhaps I’ll admit to that, but I’ve never done it in front of a large group.

And according to a recent Reuters article, keeping a lid on the expletives may be very good for the career. That’s because 64 per cent of employers think less of employees who regularly use curse words, and more than one-half (57 per cent) said they’d be less likely to promote a potty-mouthed staffer, according to a survey conducted by Careerfinder.

But a lot of the reaction to cursing really depends on the setting you’re in. When I was in university, I worked at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Windsor, Ont., building minivan after minivan as they rolled down the sweltering summer production line.

The F word didn’t seem like a swear word among all that industrial clanking. It was simply an adjective — a crucial one that had to be used in front of every single noun.

All the time. Every time.

There was no wrench. It was a fucking wrench. (Pardon my language, but it’s hard to write a column about cursing without, you know, actually cursing.)

We didn’t have a foreman. It was a fucking foreman. To my 18-year-old ears, the language seemed harsh and abrasive. But a couple weeks into the gig, and I didn’t even hear it. A month or so on the job and it had unconsciously entered my lexicon. It actually built camaraderie, oddly enough.

But what I never understood is how it didn’t follow me out the door. I was no choirboy, but I didn’t start dropping F bombs around the house when my shifts were over — though that may have more to do with the fact I would likely have gotten a slap upside the head if I even contemplated doing so.

The Chrysler days made me realize that swearing in the workplace isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a way to let off steam. For leaders, it can even show a little bit of the “I’m human” side that can be very effective.

I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but we have a new CEO here at Carswell, publishers of Canadian HR Reporter. In one of his first chats with employees, he accidentally let out a “shit” — and caught himself. But the room laughed, and it eased some of the tension. Some people who were staring intently and seriously at the new CEO instead found themselves smirking and laughing.

Employees like to know that their leaders are human — they’re not autobots handed down from the boardroom who are there to hack and slash their way through the numbers. They’re people. And people slip up, and yes — people do curse.

I won’t be running around the offices of Canadian HR Reporter dropping F bombs. It just doesn’t suit the environment and the culture here. But nor will I disparage an employee or colleague who walks in the door and lets an expletive fly.  

Sometimes, it just feels right — and no other word will suffice.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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