Bad language in the workplace

You may have seen recent press coverage of an employment tribunal case in which a manager swears during a meeting.  This has prompted widespread comment; Good Morning Britain carried out a survey on Twitter asking, ‘should the f-word be banned at work?’  The result was firmly against any such ban (61% against a ban and 39% in favour of a ban).  In this case, the manager did not direct his swearing at the employee but said in a meeting that he ‘didn’t give a f*** that [someone senior] was sponsoring [the deal in question]’.  There was some dispute about whether this language was used, but the tribunal concluded that it probably was. They went on to say that ‘[these words] are fairly commonplace and do not carry the shock value that they might have done at another time.’ What do you think?

Swearing at work may seem unprofessional and offensive to some, but commonplace to others. This case shows that this is a subjective matter and depends very much on the context in which the words are used: there is a huge difference between an employee who spills a hot drink on themselves and swears and a manager who swears directly at an employee in an aggressive manner. This case certainly should not be seen as a green card to swear at work and employers should not dismiss complaints about the use of bad language in the workplace off hand.

In fact, the employee in this case won her claim of constructive unfair dismissal. The swearing incident formed just part of the employee’s grievance about her treatment at work.  Her key complaint was that she was moved from high value accounts to low value accounts and put on a performance improvement plan without warning.  She raised a formal grievance which was rejected without proper investigation.  Following her unsuccessful appeal, she resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal. The tribunal found that the employer failed to follow their own procedures properly and their investigation into her grievance was inadequate.  What is clear from the facts, in this case, is that there had been concerns about the employee’s performance for some time.  As the tribunal confirmed, lack of capability is a fair reason to dismiss an employee, but an employer must follow a fair procedure before reaching any such decision.  It is also worth remembering that the tribunal can increase compensation awarded to an employee by up to 25% where the employer unreasonably fails to follow the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.

It was not the manager’s bad language, but the employer’s failure to properly investigate a grievance that ended up costing the employer in this case.  It is a timely reminder, that any grievance raised by an employee should be properly considered and addressed in accordance with your grievance procedure.

What happens if employers fail to address complaints about bad language?

If an employer fails to address a complaint about swearing, they may find themselves facing a discrimination claim or the employee may decide to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal. On top of any claims, allowing swearing to become acceptable and commonplace in the workplace, may cause employees to leave regardless of whether they bring a claim which in turn will lead to workplace disruption and recruitment costs.

What steps should employers do if they feel people are swearing too much in the workplace? 

If an employer is concerned by the level of swearing at a workplace, they should take action to remedy the situation as failure to do so could leave them vulnerable to an unfair dismissal or discrimination claim.  Employers will generally list swearing and aggressive language in the workplace as something that may result in disciplinary action in their disciplinary procedure. If this procedure is not being consistently followed and swearing has been allowed to reach unacceptable levels, an employer should make an announcement to all employees confirming that, going forward swearing will not be accepted in the workplace and may lead to disciplinary sanctions.  If an employer does want to impose any sanction on an employee for swearing, it is important that they follow their disciplinary procedure before doing so and act consistently across the workforce.

What steps should employees do if they feel people are swearing too much at work? 

If an employee is concerned by the level of swearing at work, they may wish to raise a grievance, either informally or formally. If they do so, an employer should properly and promptly investigate the grievance and address any issues in a consistent manner across the workforce.  

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