Policies on Profanity in the Workplace

Cursing in the office doesn't solve any problems.

Cursing in the office doesn't solve any problems.

When the slightest little thing goes wrong in some offices, the air turns blue around a colleague's head and a loud and steady stream of expletives fills the room. You might be used to hearing profanity in movies and on cable TV, but somehow, in the office, foul language just seems way out of line. If your company doesn’t already have an anti-profanity policy on the books, you should offer to compose a policy that deals with the potty-mouth problem.

Create a Code

Bad language, even when it isn’t directed at an individual, creates an intimidating work environment that is unprofessional and undermines the morale of every worker. It can also carry legal consequences and create a negative image of your company. To address the problem, draw up a code that prohibits profanity. Make sure your code addresses written as well as spoken profanity. Profanity in email, in which the sender theoretically has more time to consider the effect before hitting “Send,” should carry a stronger penalty than a loud “Dammit” over a sudden computer crash.

Racial and Other Personal Slurs

The anti-profanity policy should ban profanity that attacks others because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation -- in other words, any of the categories protected by federal anti-discrimination laws. When someone uses profane language in these instances, it creates a hostile work environment that violates federal law and could lead to harassment and discrimination complaints. Punishment for violating this policy should be spelled out clearly in your code.

Sexual Slang

Another category of banned language includes references to body parts, body functions and sexual acts. Company policy that includes prohibition of sexual harassment and discrimination must be expanded to include vulgarity, crude jokes and obscene insults. As with any policy, it must be enforced uniformly and fairly to avoid harassment charges, threats of discrimination suits or litigation.


It is important to develop a code that differentiates between someone who whispers "damn" under her breath after breaking a nail from someone whose profane tirades leave the whole staff cowering. Depending on how severe the language was and its context, disciplinary actions should be similar to those for any code violation, ranging from a warning for a first offense, recommendation for anger management courses for subsequent offenses, and dismissal if the behavior continues.

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About the Author

As a long-time newspaper reporter and staff writer, Kay Bosworth covered real estate development and business for publications in northern New Jersey. Her extensive career included serving as editor of a business education magazine for the McGraw-Hill Book Company. The Kentucky native earned a BA from Transylvania University in Lexington.

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