Can you train people to stop swearing in work?

In the second series of articles, Vicky Roberts explores how you can stop staff from swearing in the workplace.

Swearing is notoriously difficult to deal with. Many people are unsure of how to address the situation, although they recognise that swearing in the workplace is at best inappropriate, and at worst extremely offensive.

The issue often crops up when there is a change in environment, such as if a newcomer joins the team and is offended by the culture of cursing. Examples of this can be seen along gender, age and religious lines, but is it really just a matter of the individual’s opinion? 

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The main reason why swearing is perceived to be a hard subject is because language patterns are very personal to each individual. While most of us know intuitively that swearing isn’t the ‘done thing’ some don’t necessarily find it offensive, or many of those who do, can’t explain why. 

People often assume that there’s nothing that can be done, but I believe there is when you know how. 

Fight or flight

I first started researching the impact of swearing when a client asked if we could teach their senior leadership team not to swear. 

One study showed that people trying to hold their hand in freezing water could withstand the pain for longer if they swore – so using swearing is cathartic. However, an updated version of this study found that those who swore regularly, the cathartic effect didn’t work – the subjects had become desensitised to it. 

Although scientists aren’t sure why, swearing stimulates the fight or flight section of the brain – in other words hearing it puts people in a position of fear. It goes beyond societal norms and conventions – it has a psychological impact on those around you. 

Reinforcing the point, delegates have told me that swearing is actually a tactic used by the army. If a soldier is in shock on the battlefield, a commanding officer will swear at them to trigger the adrenaline in their brain, making it easier to get the soldier moving again. In this scenario, the powers of swearing are being used to save lives. In most workplaces, however, bad language needs to be dealt with differently. 

Using the facts 

Staff need the knowledge, using the research, to train people on the impact of swearing. Teaching managers why it should be avoided, rather than taking a “thou shalt not swear” route, will be much more effective.

Although we assume that people’s choice of language is very personal to them, and don’t want to seem like we’re judging a personal choice, the fact is that there’s something about swearing. It doesn’t help that many curse words have a bodily or religious connotation (you’re thinking through them now, aren’t you?). 

People have to learn that others can be offended by what they say and how they say it – it’s as simple as that. 

Use a personal standpoint 

Express the problem from a personal standpoint. Saying “that makes me feel uncomfortable” is harder to argue with than “that’s offensive, you’re foul mouthed.” This is because rather than a comment on them, it’s sending out a message to others that you’re offended. It’s all part of the broader dignity at work message – if your workplace values say that you respect each other, others must be respectful of the fact that you’re offended.

There are three layers to this training approach – knowledge (giving the facts from the research), skill (the ability to say “that makes me feel offended”), and behaviour (that comment being accepted and acknowledged, with the individual changing their behaviour as a result). 

Positively reinforce the message

This approach is a simple rule to follow, but it has to be positively reinforced by broader training around dignity in the workplace, and why you expect staff to take that on board. This is especially true in workplaces where swearing is already engrained in the culture. The company values must show that you treat each other with respect, and one element of that is following your training at work. 

If the problem persists, a manager needs to give feedback. If after these discussions, the employee refuses to change that behaviour, it needs to become a disciplinary issue. How forceful the manager will be on the employee depends on whether the swearing was a slip-up, or a deliberate choice of words to create effect. 

We use a traffic light-type system to ask delegates to evaluate examples we have collected over the years. It develops their confidence to manage in the moment following the training: Calling out a low level example as a ‘red card moment’ with appropriate follow up with the individual staff member can help to manage the situation with humour and without it feeling like ‘preaching.’  

We now incorporate swearing into our dignity at work training. Following these steps and giving managers the confidence and training to manage swearing will create a more respectful culture in the workplace.

Vicky Roberts is head of learning and development at HR services firm Vista

Training Journal

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