This summer, the Web has been abuzz with blogs defending profanity’s place at the office. The hubbub over swearing at work has been fueled by two events: President Barack Obama’s use of the word “ass” (as in “whose ass to kick”) during an interview about the Gulf oil spill with Matt Lauer on the Today Show in June, and Goldman Sachs’ decision earlier this month to ban the use of swear words in e-mail.
The president’s “a-bomb” prompted Harvard Business Review Senior Editor Dan McGinn to wonder whether it’s ever appropriate for leaders to swear. McGinn maintains that even though it was a controversial comment, Obama deliberately and strategically used “a mild expletive” as a rhetorical tool: to show his anger and “to try to better connect with voters’ emotions” at a time when he was being criticized for reacting to the crisis too tepidly.
Citing research on swearing in the workplace and reflecting on his own use of curse words in the office, McGinn notes how some managers and corporate leaders might use vulgar language “to show candor, strong feeling or to try to create a we’re-all-in-this-together esprit de corps.”
Where McGinn is measured and thoughtful about swearing at work, New America Foundation Fellow Reihan Salam, writing about Goldman Sachs’s profanity prohibition for The Daily Beast, is unconditional. He believes using swear words in the office is an employee’s inalienable right, and he calls Goldman’s ban on cursing in e-mail “an assault on the dignity of labor.” How high-minded of him.
Salam argues that Goldman Sachs’ employees—and traders in particular–need to be able to express via e-mail when they think a deal is “shitty” and to tell people to “fuck off” so that they can feel a sense of power and importance. He writes that in an organization where traders have “no ownership stake in their places of business, no meaningful workplace representation, and very little aside from generous compensation to feel like interesting and important human beings,” they need to be able to swear to build camaraderie.
Both McGinn and Salam come to the same conclusion, albeit in different ways, that swearing serves a purpose in the workplace: It doesn’t create a hostile work environment, as the HR and legal wonks believe, but rather it helps employees blow off steam and build morale.
I swear at work (*usually* under my breath, in the “privacy” of my cubicle) to vent anger and frustration, and I can understand why a manager might swear in front of subordinates to connect with them. I’m not bothered by most of the colorful language managers have used in front of me. In fact, I’ve found it humanizes them.
Swearing at work can serve a purpose, but I also think that there has to be a nobler way to vent anger and build solidarity among employees. After all, you wouldn’t find the recommendation, “Swear in front of your staff,” on a list of ways to boost morale or reduce stress.
What do you think?