Swearing at Work – Dealing With Offensive Language

Everyone has heard swearing at work, and other offensive language. Some have used it and a few people employ it regularly, seemingly without a second’ thought.

Whilst some people don’t have an issue with hearing vulgar language in the workplace, other employees may be offended or intimidated. We must also consider where the bar for inappropriate language lies, which can make this a tricky issue for a workplace to deal with.

workers having a discussion at a desk

The point is that swearing and offensive language is an age old problem. But it has no place in any organisation that is genuinely striving to achieve a friendly and productive working environment.

Swearing at work and using offensive language upsets many people, and can distract them from their work. It also calls into question the attitude and ethics of the person who’’s using the language.

Is Swearing at Work That Bad?

The often heard counter argument to this is that people shouldn’’t be so easily offended by colleagues swearing at work.

They should realise that offensive language is usually a way of relieving stress. It can also create a feeling of camaraderie among a particular group.

This argument ignores some crucial issues, however. Offensive language doesn’t necessarily relieve stress. In fact, It can make it worse. Swearing at work can cross a line. When the delivery changes from simply using bad language to swearing at a fellow employee, the situation can become problematic.

Such language also has a way of being addictive. When one person uses it, another may join in. This obviously leads to more offensive remarks.

The alleged camaraderie offensive language creates comes at a cost. Many people feel disgust for the group that indulges in bad language. Where one employee will not consider swearing to be an issue, another might find it intimidating and offensive.

This can lead to issues with workplace morale and a lack of team unity. It’s clear that employers need to consider their policies on appropriate language at work. Without clear policies, some employees may feel empowered to use language with racist or sexist overtones, leaving the employer open to sex discrimination or racial discrimination claims.

Workers’ Rights

HR specialists have studied the use of offensive language at work. Their point of view is universal and crystal clear: – nobody should use offensive language in the workplace.

Workers have a right to expect to hear civil, reasonable language at all times.

The reality, of course, is different. Offensive language occurs to varying degrees. Some of it is simple swearing but at other times, the language expresses clichéd and perverse comments about race, sexuality, gender, religious belief, age, and disability.

Whatever the nature of the language, if it causes offence, then it’s inappropriate.

PC Gone Mad?

This may seem extreme. The charge levelled against this approach is that it is political correctness gone mad, and that what may be offensive to one person is not offensive to another.

But what an employer must do is think seriously about the implications of any offensive language. For instance, if an employee complains about the use of offensive language, how will the employer deal with it?

An employer must therefore place offensive language in the context of the law. UK Employment law gives staff the right to protection from discrimination, bullying and harassment, and which promotes equal opportunities, is relevant in this regard.

Policies on Swearing & Offensive Language at Work

The next step is for an employer to create a policy about the use of offensive language. The aim of the policy must be to deal with such language in accordance with the law and reasonable practice.

The policy should begin by clarifying that an employer must offer a safe working environment for all staff. The point here is that the issue of safety encompasses the need to reduce the use of offensive language to a minimum.

The policy must then address the question of what “offensive language” actually means. All workplaces need procedures that can review this matter in a reasonable way.

Defining Offensive Language

It can help if the policy makes direct reference to the law. For example, language is offensive if it includes unreasonable and biased comments about someone’s religion, sexuality, race, age, gender or disability.

The policy must also answer the problem of “accepted and commonplace” banter in the workplace. Employers defending themselves against charges of allowing offensive language at work have used this phrase.

They have maintained that certain language cannot be offensive if it is accepted and commonplace. Court cases have shown, however, that this defence is weak. Even employees who have themselves used offensive language at work have brought cases to court and won compensation.

Finally, the policy must support those workers who wish to complain about the use of offensive language. It should advise concerned employees to take immediate action by speaking to a member of HR or their manager. It should also guarantee that complainants will not suffer victimisation, bullying or harassment.

There should be a definied grievance and disciplinary procedure to deal with complaints of aggressive language. This will ensure all parties involved in any complaint are treated fairly, and the employer carries out their Duty of Care to Employees.

Awareness and Training

An employer must ensure all staff are aware of the policy on swearing and offensive language, and the best way to do this is by running training sessions.

At these sessions, trainers can introduce related topics, such as equality and diversity. An employer must also train managers so that they are fully conversant with the policy and its procedures.

Managers must understand precisely how they should go about investigating complaints regarding the use of offensive language.


Employees must have confidence that any complaint they make receives a prompt, thorough and fair hearing. Only then will they come forward and raise their concerns, allowing their employer to reduce the incidence of offensive language at work.

Dealing With Bullying

Have you experienced bullying in the workplace? For advice on who to talk to and the regulations that can be used to tackle it, article on dealing with bullying at work will help.

Using bad and agressive language can cause distress in the workplace. Our guide on the signs of bullying at work gives insight into the effect intimidating language can have.

FAQ’s on Swearing at Work

Here are a few of the commonly asked questions about scenarios where bad language might be encountered in the workplace. So just what is, and is not, acceptable?

Can you be fired for swearing at work?

If your workplace has a policy on swearing at work and classes the use of bad language in some situations as misconduct, you could be fired for it. However, it’s unlikely that most workplaces would dismiss you for a single offence. If several issues with swearing were recorded, or if other disciplinary issues were on record however, you may be dismissed.

Can my manager swear at me?

Someone in a managerial position should not be using foul language or aggressively swearing at an employee. Under UK employment law, employees have the right to be protected from bullying and harassment in the workplace. Your employer has a duty of care to protect your wellbeing at work. In the first instance, consider raising a formal grievance if you are having issues with inappropriate language and aggressive behaviour.

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