Whether swearing in the workplace is acceptable will depend on the context and the employer’s expectations of its workforce. In some working environments, swearing may be commonplace and culturally accepted as part of everyday communication between colleagues. But in other workplaces, swearing may be considered unprofessional, offensive and grounds for disciplinary action.
Employers have to take the lead and make it clear to its workforce what kind of language is acceptable and what will not be tolerated.
Swearing in the workplace should be addressed within the organisation’s disciplinary policy or employee code of conduct. This should set out the employer’s position on the use of offensive and inappropriate language and for clarity, provide examples of what would be considered misconduct and subject to disciplinary action. The policy should also advise of the potential sanctions for failure to comply.
Importantly, employees need to be made aware of the expected standards through training, such as during the onboarding process, or as part of equality and diversity training.
The organisation’s stance on swearing has to be upheld consistently if it is to be effective and to reduce the risk of complaints. This means ensuring all managers and supervisors understand the policy and procedures for dealing with issues relating to swearing and offensive language, and are also aware of the importance of their own actions and behaviours in setting the standards within their teams.
If a manager swears at an employee
Managers or employers should not abuse their position of authority by using profanities in breach of the required standards under the organisation’s conduct policy, and should refrain from using inappropriate language when under pressure or in heated situations. Managers who are frustrated by employees and their performance should be trained and able to deal with such circumstances; taking time to calm down before speaking with the employee, deferring to the organisation’s relevant policies and procedures and meeting the expected levels of respect and professionalism.
Managers should not use foul language to intimidate or humiliate junior or fellow team members. Being subject to offensive language may lead to grievances against the manager, and if the language used is so offensive and serious as to result in an employee resigning from their job, they may be able to bring a claim to an Employment Tribunal for constructive dismissal. Using swearing in this way may also justify the summary dismissal of the manager who used the language.
If an employee swears at a manager
If an employee directs abusive or offensive language towards a manager, or any employee, the facts of the incident should always be considered before any decision is made to take disciplinary action. In one tribunal case, for example, where an employee used abusive language towards a colleague in a sudden explosion of temper and under the influence of drink, it was held to be unfair to dismiss that employee without first giving him the opportunity to apologise.
If the employee was refusing to carry out an instruction from their manager when they used foul language, this could be considered insubordination, which could constitute gross misconduct and result in summary dismissal.
Disciplinary action for swearing
Before any disciplinary action is taken, a fair procedure has to be followed. This means establishing the facts of the incident and viewing the use of language in the context of the circumstances and the organisation’s conduct policy. Dismissal should be considered a last resort and only justifiable if the employee’s conduct was so severe it constitutes gross misconduct and summary dismissal, or lesser punishment such as a verbal or written warning.
The organisation’s conduct policy should provide guidance on what punitive measures are available and appropriate, to ensure consistency and compliance with your legal obligations. For example, if this was a one-off incident, could the matter be resolved informally once the parties have ‘cooled down’, but where swearing relates to repeat offences, alleged discrimination or bullying, or where the employer’s reputation is at risk due to complaints from customers, this may result in a more serious penalty being imposed.
In serious cases, you should look to see whether there are any mitigating factors. If a long-serving member of staff with a clear conduct record is being accused of gross misconduct due to an incident involving profanities, you should look to understand why they acted seemingly out of character. Were they provoked or acting under extreme and exceptional pressure?
Discrimination or harassing language
Even if an organisation opts to take a more relaxed approach to swearing at work, employers have to be aware of their duty to take steps to prevent bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation in the workplace.
The law protects workers from discrimination, harassment, bullying and victimisation relating to protected characteristics, including age, sex, race and maternity. If someone is subject to profanities or foul language because of a protected characteristic, which they feel is inappropriate, derogatory or offensive, this may be considered unlawful discrimination, even where the person swearing claims it to be ‘banter’.
Employers can be held legally responsible for the actions of its workforce during the course of employment, under vicariously liability rules. An employer may not be held responsible if an Employment Tribunal decides they took all reasonable steps to try to prevent harassment, discrimination, and victimisation by members of staff. This means it is in the employer’s interest to ensure workers are aware of and trained on the organisation’s policy and standards of conduct, and that any complaints are acted on quickly to reduce the risk of costly discrimination claims.
DavidsonMorris’ employment lawyers bring particular expertise in dealing with complex, sensitive disciplinary matters involving reputational risk. As well as advising on specific cases, we can review HR policies and processes to ensure they are effective in reducing the risk of conduct issues and provide a compliant and robust framework for dealing with conduct and disrepute issues, while minimising the risk of tribunal claims. Contact our experts for advice.
Swearing in the workplace FAQs
Is swearing in the workplace gross misconduct?
There is no law that swearing in the workplace is an act of gross misconduct but employers should clarify the standards expected of their workforce within a conduct or disciplinary policy, which may specify that the use of foul language can be treated as misconduct and result in disciplinary action.
Is swearing at work unprofessional?
How swearing at work is perceived will depend on the general culture and the conduct policy of an organisation. While some workplaces consider swearing unprofessional and offensive, others may accept it as part of workers' interaction.
Is swearing at employees illegal?
Managers should not use foul language to intimidate or humiliate team members. If the language used by an employer is so offensive and serious that an employee resigns from their job, they could issue a claim for constructive dismissal or discrimination.
Last updated: 5 December 2021