New York investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc. raised eyebrows recently when it instructed employees to stop using profanity in e-mails and text messages, warning that the company's software would screen out swear words spelled with asterisks.
Cursing, it seems, is a natural human reflex. But if it has been around as long as language itself, does it make sense to try to banish it from the modern, democratic workplace? Probably not, experts say.
"I'm opposed to regulations," said James O'Connor, author, public relations expert and founder of the Cuss Control Academy, in an interview from his Chicago-area office. "Guidelines and policies are better."
"There's a lot of swearing that's just good-natured, lazy language," he said, adding that even mild-mannered people may utter expletives when they trip or spill their coffee or their computer gets hung up. "They just roll off the tongue automatically."
What makes profanity hard to pin down is its sheer versatility. Cussing can be humorous or hurtful. It can relieve stress, foster camaraderie among co-workers and even help to relieve pain, various studies show.
When properly used, swearing can provide genuine shock value - something management consultants call dropping the "f-bomb." (This is best pulled off by people who don't normally swear.) But inevitable tensions in the workplace can change social cussing into something far more unpleasant.
"When something stressful happens at work, it's hard to restrain oneself," Mr. O'Connor said. "The worst is when we swear at each other."
When it comes to swearing, why we do it is often more significant than what we say. There are also national and cultural differences.
"It's all about the context," said Mario Canseco, vice-president of public affairs at Angus Reid, which found in a recent opinion poll that Canadians were far more apt to cuss in front of their co-workers than Americans or Britons.
"We tend to be a little more colloquial in Canada."
That's doesn't mean cursing at work is on the rise, Mr. Canseco said. Canadians surveyed said they heard their co-workers swearing far more than they swore themselves. Sixty-one per cent said they heard people in the workplace swearing either frequently or occasionally. Asked how often they swore, only 34 per cent said they swore frequently or occasionally.
"People are hesitant to engage in similar conversation," he said.
Americans are far more reticent about swearing at work, the poll found. While only 32 per cent of Canadians said they never swear when talking to co-workers, 46 per cent of Americans said they never swear at work.
"Americans don't want to swear in the office because they think it's too dangerous," Mr. Canseco said. "They're careful nothing gets misconstrued because something might be used against you," such as a harassment lawsuit.
Legislation this side of the border is being tightened, too. Last December, Ontario passed workplace harassment legislation that would include verbal abuse or "vexatious comment" in the definition of violence in the workplace.
"With the new bill in Ontario, derogatory or inappropriate comments could be considered violent behaviour, leading to a whole new set of problems and risks for the organization," Bill Webber, vice-president of human resources at Drake International, said in an interview.
Most experts say it's likely impossible to distinguish good from bad swearing and crack down only on the latter - certainly not with automated software that screens electronic messages for bad words. (Last year, for example, the U.S. bank JP Morgan Chase had to override its automatic profanity detector long enough to write a press release about a cancer prevention charity it was supporting called the Feel Your Boobies Foundation.)
The Bank of Nova Scotia has policies and guidelines covering "professional and appropriate conduct," said Ann DeRabbie, director of public affairs. That includes employees' communications with each other and with customers. "We would consider appropriate language part of that professional and appropriate conduct," she said.
Employees sign off on the guidelines each year. The focus, Ms. DeRabbie said, is on maintaining "a respectful, non-threatening work environment."
Scotiabank also requires employees to sign off on its Internet and e-mail code of conduct each year, which requires the use of "appropriate and professional" language in electronic communications, whether intended for a customer or an internal recipient.
Good judgment is the key, she emphasizes. "Consider carefully whether the recipient(s) would consider the communication to be offensive, harassing, threatening, annoying, unprofessional or otherwise unwelcome," the policy states.
While most companies don't have formal policies for dealing with foul language at work, Bill Webber, vice-president of human resources at Drake International, said swearing falls into the larger category of behaviour in the workplace.
"Most organizations simply say you must behave in a professional manner and leave it at that," said Mr. Webber, adding that punitive policies would seem unfair.
As always, the boss sets the tone, Mr. O'Connor notes: "If they say, I don't want to hear any foul language, people will try a lot harder not to do it."
Besides, cursing is typically seen as unbecoming. "One of the traits of leadership is strong emotional intelligence," Mr. Webber of Drake said. "You're the port in the storm; people come to you. If you are swearing, it means you can't handle your own emotions. People tend not to gravitate to someone like that."
Employees who swear too much are seen as grumblers with a negative attitude, Mr. O'Connor said. "Employers like people with a can-do attitude, who resolve problems and get on with things."
Whether to swear or not should be matter of common sense, Mr. Webber said. "If you're with a more senior individual, you don't swear. If you're with a client, you definitely don't swear."
So how do you swear off swearing?
"You have to control your emotions," Mr. O'Connor said. "That's hard. We do get impatient, we do get frustrated. You just have to bite your tongue. It's a matter of discipline."
Special to The Globe and Mail
TAME YOUR TONGUE
James O'Connor, author and founder of the Cuss Control Academy, offers the following tips for forsaking swearing:
Recognize that swearing does damage.
Start by eliminating casual swearing.
Practice being patient.
Cope, don't cuss.
Use alternative words.
Make your point politely.
Think of what you should have said.
Keep working at it.