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Swearing at Work: What’s the Big F*cking Deal?

A State of the Union on swearing your way through the working day

For more than seven years, I worked for one of the most popular men’s magazines in the country. Our editorial offices were like somebody’s fantasy of a frat house: Models on casting calls; expensive toys like Segways and drones hand-delivered to us for testing (i.e., playing with until we broke them); and enough liquor tastings and comped booze to satisfy an angry Mel Gibson. We were excitable; we were passionate; we were, for the most part, drunk. So you can easily imagine what the language was like.

I suspect the swearing part is true of most publications. Our managing editor at the time — one of the wittiest bosses I’ve ever had — once shared an exchange from a job interview she’d had at a prestigious newspaper that went like this:

Her: Are we allowed to curse in the newsroom here?
Boss: The newsroom has its fair share of swearing.
Her: Can I say “fuck?”
Boss: You wouldn’t be the first one.
Her: Okay. What about “cock-balls”?

The latter question had me laughing so hard, I can’t recall what she told me the boss’ reply was. But I respected the fact that she was smart (and bold) enough to ask, rather than end up in a meeting with HR (on day one, knowing her).

All of which brings me to my main point: In a time where the norms of the working world are changing rapidly, what does the average employer make of office cursing? Is it really a big deal anymore?

“Depending on the profession and the culture, there could be nothing wrong with cursing, or something very wrong with cursing,” says New Jersey-based talent acquisition supervisor JaLeena Anthony, who has 10 years experience in human resources. “Things are definitely more relaxed than they used to be, but there’s a lot to consider: Is the job customer-facing? Is cursing part of the culture? Are employees cursing at someone or just in casual conversation? The biggest issue with cursing in the workplace is the offensive component, and if any reasonable person would be offended.”

Which is exactly what happened to former White House communications director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci — his cursing personally offended his coworkers (and worst of all, publicly). In general, industry workplaces across the board all utilize some level of swearing, but strict variables exist within each equation, even in politics. Behind the scenes, politicians curse like Gordon Gekko in a Central Park beatdown — they’re just generally smart enough not to do it in front of journalists.

And that’s where the Mooch fucked up: Last July, he told a reporter at The New Yorker that then-White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was “a fucking paranoid schizophrenic,” and also said of Trump’s former chief strategist, “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock or build my own brand off the fucking strength of the president.” To his demise, Scaramucci didn’t ask for the conversation to be off the record: Four days later, after just 10 days on the job, he was abruptly fired and escorted off White House grounds.

So, when exactly is it no big deal to drop expletives at work? Yehuda Baruch, professor of management and research director at the Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton in the U.K., says there are many appropriate times. In fact, Baruch told the Society for Human Resource Management that workplace swearing can even be constructive. “One would need to use a rare commodity called common sense,” he said. “For example, certain swear words can generate a sense of team culture and close connection, or bring a sense of urgency and emphasis when a more senior person talks to her or his team.”

Other workplace experts feel it’s when the context, tone or target of the profanity is inappropriate that causes problems. Habitual cursers aren’t fun to work with, and abusive swearing can bring about reduced morale and productivity. HR professionals say implementing written policies about cursing on the job would be “overkill and practically impossible,” but Anthony says adequate policies already exist.

“Oftentimes, codes of ethics contain words like, ‘You cannot be disruptive in the workplace.’ So, while things have definitely changed, it becomes problematic if your cursing is disruptive. It boils down to what’s considered professional.”

In other words: Just use ya Goddamn brain, ya fuckin’ moron.