To swear or not to bloody swear in the office?

The last sitting session of Parliament before the election was called raised a difficult issue: is it ever OK to swear at work? In Federal Parliament, the answer is unequivocal: no.

Ten full minutes were wasted in a war of (bad) words between Christopher Pyne and Wayne Swan. Pyne dobbed on Swan, like the po-faced teacher's pet who gloats "Take it back or I'm telling!"

Pyne claimed Swan was swearing at the PM and requested he withdraw the remark; Swan denied it. The teacher in this case was the Speaker, who asked Pyne what the "disgraceful swearing" specifically was. Then Pyne refused to speak aloud such appalling language and instead wrote down the word and passed it along (I kid you not).

It was a four letter word beginning with 'c' and one commonly used to describe politicians, and politics in general. It's not the one you're thinking of, though – it was actually "crap". How anti-climatic.

Still, it's good to know they're debating the important issues.

An employee can be sacked for swearing at work if they've been warned previously about such language.

Lucienne Gleeson

Swear jarring

Nonetheless, swearing in the workplace may be a more important issue than you think. Look at the levels of maturity displayed here, on both sides. When it comes to professional etiquette, profanity could persuade your manager you're not worth that promotion.

Mike Roddy, a HR professional at Randstad, said his three top tips for swearing at work are: "Don't, don't and don't".

Although he acknowledges uttering such words can have "a cathartic effect in releasing some stress when matters don't go your way", he advises "learning to substitute words as a strategy to ensure you don't offend." Get linguistically creative.

Roddy says working overseas can pose a particular problem for Australians, when polite profanity may get lost in translation: "Australia is recognised as a straight-talking culture, with informality being the order of our workplace discussions." Clearly, this isn't true in other cultures; even certain other English-speaking workplaces abroad. You only need to look at how many countries banned the infamous 'Where the bloody hell are you?' Australian tourism ad for evidence. In this country, he recommends a commonsense approach "as opposed to drafting concrete rules which border on over-regulation."

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A sacking offence

No Aussie likes being nannied in the workplace, but Lucienne Gleeson, an associate at PC Lawyers, offers caution: "An employee can be sacked for swearing at work if they've been warned previously about such language." Strewth!

"I've acted for various employers who've terminated individuals for repeatedly swearing – mainly those working in offices or client-facing roles."

An employee can even be formally disciplined for swearing in a positive context, in a workplace with a zero-tolerance policy. But the law is changing with the times – slightly: "The law on swearing at work is constantly evolving because it reflects Australia's attitude towards swearing more broadly. The Fair Work Commission, which hears unfair dismissal cases, recently made the distinction between swearing generally and swearing at a manager or colleague. If the swearing is aggressive, and aimed at management or another employee, it's much more likely that it'll warrant termination, even in a workplace where such language is commonly used."

As good as it can feel to let a choice expletive fly, is it ever really worth it? Randstad's Mike Roddy says: "I've yet to see any well-considered research which suggests that swearing is conducive to better workplace practice and culture."

Bloody oath we do

Tasha Miller, who runs online jewellery store Jubly Umph in Daylesford, Victoria, refutes this. "We actively encourage swearing in our office. We run an online business and find that swearing is essential when dealing with problems like malfunctioning computers, printers and slow internet."

In a small office she says it creates "camaraderie and humour, reduces stress and improves communication." How? I ask. "Because once you say "f… off" loudly, somebody usually asks 'what's wrong'?".

They agree to not swear around customers or the public, but Miller says the practice is liberating: "I don't have a problem working somewhere where it's inappropriate, but the great thing about running your own business is you get to set the rules and culture."

Gemma Kirby is a coal miner in Queensland and has been "one of a few women on a 90-man crew". It was a hotbed of expletives, and the men reacted to her in one of two ways: "A quarter of the men (especially the older generation) wouldn't swear or tell filthy stories whilst I was around. The other three-quarters would say 'if she wants to work in a man's environment, this is what it's all about' (with a few extra expressive words, obviously) and I have to say, I agree."

When she first joined the mining crew aged 21, her dad's advice was: "Just drop the f-bomb a few times and you'll be right". It turned out to be a reminder about the power of language: "I don't feel this language is totally necessary, but to be heard and respected in the workplace I work in, I use it as a tool."

The benefits of expletives in the workplace seem obvious to her now: "I've worked in environments with women that have been so toxic and volatile, yet the workplace etiquette is like following a rule book. I haven't had any real issues working in a male-dominated environment, and would go as far as saying I actually prefer it."

Does your workplace actively discourage, or encourage, swearing? Is it good for morale, or counter-productive? Let us know in the comments section.

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