Leadership & Organization Development Journal

Emerald Article: Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: When anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable Yehuda Baruch, Stuart Jenkins

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To cite this document: Yehuda Baruch, Stuart Jenkins, (2007),"Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: When anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 28 Iss: 6 pp. 492 507 Permanent link to this document: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/01437730710780958 Downloaded on: 23-03-2012 References: This document contains references to 67 other documents To copy this document: permissions@emeraldinsight.com This document has been downloaded 3319 times.

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A certain originality element stems from the fact that. 2007 pp. groups. We have developed a model which suggests that under certain circumstances. Studies typically focused on the negative outcomes of physical or verbal misbehaviour. a permissive leadership culture. and even the importance. of using non-conventional and sometimes uncivil language in the workplace. . Studies of negative behaviour (such as misconduct and aggression) exist too. Problem employees Paper type Research paper 492 Received July 2006 Revised October 2006 Accepted November 2006 Leadership & Organization Development Journal Vol. Keywords Leadership.The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at www. Findings – This paper identifies the relevance. Design/methodology/approach – Case studies and qualitative analysis were applied. aggressive form. UK Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the use of expletives and swearing in the workplace. A growing literature has emerged on adverse behaviour in the organizational context (Ackroyd and Thompson. the paper found it necessary to use swear words (avoiding usage of the explicit form). commitment. Norwich. 28 No.emeraldinsight. 492-507 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0143-7739 DOI 10. 1999). negative behaviours may end with positive outcomes for individuals.6 Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture When anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins University of East Anglia.com/0143-7739. bearing in mind the purpose of the paper. Practical implications – There is a need for leaders to apply. Our aim is to explore the use of swearing in the workplace. the paper hopes that this will not cause offence to the readership of the journal. Linguistics. but rather focusing on its possible positive aspects. under certain circumstances. and consequently their organizations.1108/01437730710780958 Introduction Much of the literature in organizational psychology and management has focused on the positive side of people management. and involvement) and behaviour (performance and citizenship). the authors hope that this will not cause offence to the readership of the journal. not merely in its dysfunctional. It proposes to challenge leadership style and to suggest ideas for management best practice. methods that fit well for this sensitive topic. 6. Conceptual frameworks have emphasized positive elements in terms of both attitudes (satisfaction. Originality/value – The paper is an original contribution to an area where research is scarce. Employee behaviour. Bearing in mind the purpose of the paper. This paper advises leaders on how it may lead to positive consequences.htm LODJ 28. Research limitations/implications – Sample size and representativeness present limitations. focusing on swearing language. These aspects can be swearing that enables employees to As this paper deals with swearing language it was found necessary to use swear words (not in their explicit form).

1999) are some of the many taxonomies used to reflect negative. The way we use and interpret language. should be allowed to penetrate the workplace. Language in the workplace Organizations place great importance on their public image and their customer service. which was found to carry adverse effects on organizational dynamics (Glendinning. to develop social relationships. absenteeism. 2001). bullying is a verbal aggressive behaviour (Adams. Studies of negative behaviours in organizations suffer from a lack of a clear definition. Studies have produced ample evidence for the negative outcomes of such behaviours. in particular those associated with misbehaviour. expression. for gender leadership differences). although we avoided their explicit form. and even be instrumental for release of stress. We highlight a specific case where apparent misbehaviour can serve an organization well. Consequently.. “Deviant behaviour” (Robinson and Bennett. 2003. Such usage is not typical in academic writing. might be relevant. and damage the image of the organization (Swallow. The language and other forms of expression people use are part of the style applied in an organization (Westwood and Linstead. which are usually closely linked to prestigious societal norms. 2004). stress. in order to create a competitive advantage. both for individuals and their employing organizations. so they present a prestigious “public face”. We explore varying norms across gender. They are therefore keen to align with their customers’ expectations. 327). The question of whether or not to be permissive to this phenomenon is a clear leadership challenge. may manifest positive outcomes. 2001.better express their feelings (such as frustration). Expressive style forms part of what makes and maintains distinct identities within organizations (Scherer. it was necessary to use some swear words. we examine the nature of swearing and its relevance in society. 1998). “Dysfunctional behaviour” (Griffin et al. We wish to apologize to readers who may find the use of swear words offensive. retention problems. “Misbehaviour in organizations” (Sagie et al. or to signal solidarity. However. Interpretation of swearing. and seniority (see Callahan et al. Theory development We approach workplace swearing from two distinct perspectives: managerial and linguistic. 2005). threats and verbal abuse can lead to depression. Taboo language Swearing at work 493 . reduced productivity. Vardi and Weitz. we hope that this will be accepted. Nevertheless. Baruch. organizations avoid revealing their internal culture if it contrasts or challenges societal norms. and other symbols is part of the creation of cultural assumptions (Hatch. Abusive behaviour and swearing is detrimental even when staffs are not physically harmed. Not all swearing. Bearing in mind the purpose of the paper. Repeated occurrences of swearing. rather than its simplistic literal meaning. we examine how far societal norms.. Regarding the managerial. 1985).. we argue that such behaviour may emerge in the form of self-expression. occupation. 1993). 2005. 1995). and forms organizational culture (Schein. 2004). From the linguistic perspective. in making certain academic points within this paper. and sometimes destructive behaviours. antisocial. socialistic mechanism. of course. reduced morale. For example. 2003. p.

but because of the affectation and reactions they arouse (Paivio and Begg. Overall. some see the backlash as the over-application of political correctness (Freedman. People are expected to discuss matters without using taboo words. swearing is considered powerful because it challenges the societal class codes. the majority of employees do not have direct contact with the public. 1981). and anything else that has a sacred place in the belief systems of a community (de Klerk. in the form of swearing. “powerful” speech styles vary between cultures. or does profanity within organizations spread to the wider society? Based on the discussion above. In the Western model. Nevertheless. rather than organizations influencing society. 1991). and avoided by the dominant and socially powerful. 1982). and is indicative of a shift in societal norms. increasing social informality and freedom since the 1960s. the relaxing of profanity codes in movies and on television. we assume that organizational phenomena follow societal norms. dictate the use of different speech modes. but would be viewed as immature and weak in Japan (Wetzel. Different domains. and . This is particularly the case with interactions between the working class and the middle and upper classes (Chaika. However. 2000). 2000). 1988). They sometimes include the use of swearing. such as operational meetings or informal workplace discourse. excretion. Associations such as the Cuss Control Academy try to stem the flow of taboo language. and the reactions they bring about.LODJ 28. upheld. To a certain extent there has been a backlash against this trend. Linguistic taboos. working class people who use taboo language may not intend to shock. they may simply consider it to be an everyday norm (Hughes. are part of the power strategies used for defining interpersonal relationships. and alignment (or otherwise) with societal norms. Taboos in society are usually defined. and has largely lost its ability to shock (Peterson. 1994): . Social class acts as a further intervening variable. The trend is continuing. that it has become almost a new norm. swear words are not always considered offensive because of their denotative meaning. Workplace language may therefore evolve to suit the culture and needs of particular groups of employees. the amount of profanity used in conversation has increased dramatically during the past few decades (DuFrene and Lehman. Does the increased use of profanity in society penetrate organizations. . Swearing in society Modes of language. 1992). Many management consultancies proclaim that firms should eradicate swearing in this environment. . This has been attributed to a number of factors (McGrath. A question remains concerning the direction of influence. Swearing has now become so commonplace and pervasive in the mass media. However. However. However. Its effect can particularly be seen in relation to workplace language in the USA. usually focus on sex. a decrease in the importance of religion to many Western cultures.6 494 should therefore be unacceptable for staff working in areas where they can be heard (or overheard) by customers. confrontational language that violates taboos is seen as a powerful style in the West. For example. as linguistic norms vary across social classes. 2002).

and even within these sub-groups. 2002).. 67) and is valued as such because it replaces primitive physical aggression (Jay. casual profanity. 2004). When there is no or little stress. but Swearing at work 495 . An organization as a whole tends to have an identifiable culture.Types of swearing Montagu (2001) classifies swearing into social swearing and annoyance swearing. 1988). p. (2004) found many clear instances of swearing aimed at signalling solidarity in all-male factory sub-cultures. or to signal or develop in-group solidarity. The group identity of sub-cultures within an organization aligns with the community of practice model. where the speaker seeks sympathy from an addressee who is not directly responsible for the perceived offence. 1980). A speech act that reinforces the positive face or self-image of the addressee is an example of a positive politeness strategy (Brown and Levinson. while annoyance swearing continues. sub-cultures may exist that have a lively. with friendly insults and a witty use of coarse. they may not be happy. The same politeness strategy is used both in direct complaints. 61). p. Daly et al. In high-stress workplaces where swearing is permitted. Swearing is then seen to be a mark of solidarity within the group. Social swearing Social swearing is used conversationally in order to help define interpersonal relationships. and whinges. swearing has been shown to often be used as a form of positive politeness (Daly et al. while annoyance swearing increases. The characteristics of each sub-culture are defined by the patterns of interaction between its members. 1999). Swearing can serve to manifest and signal solidarity. this can be a valuable signal. swearing tends to stop altogether. due to the competitive nature of men’s speech (Coates. As stress levels rise. Annoyance swearing Annoyance swearing provides a “relief mechanism” for the release of stress and tension (Montagu. in context). increases in the stress level cause social swearing to cease. In situations of unbearably high stress. In some organizations. and a number of sub-cultures. boisterous communication style. where people use a variety of linguistic ways to increase their attractiveness and influence other’s behaviour (Liden and Mitchell. swearing is tolerated either formally. Swearing will typify certain sub-groups. It may signify membership of a social group (or social class. communication is likely to feature the use of linguistic politeness strategies. 1987. and their shared ways of working. Within such organizations.. This may take the form of humour manipulation (Cooper. This is particularly the case with all-male or male-dominated sub-cultures. and their mode of language can become one of their defining features (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet. formed spontaneously and informally. or due to permissive control leadership approach. social swearing can dominate. As long as the employees are swearing. 1999. Within each community of practice. Within a close-knit work group. Further. We will now discuss both to better understand how they may fit into workplace language. up to a point. social swearing tends to decrease. 2001). 2005). p. Levels of social and annoyance swearing are correlated with stress (Montagu. swearing would usually be contingent on contextual situations or scenarios. This may be part of ingratiatory behaviour (Kipnis et al. 2001. 59). where the speaker expects the addressee to rectify matters.

and helps to develop group norms and cohesion. Taking this point to the extreme. as there is a risk to employees’ health (Montagu. Impact of swearing Social swearing provides stress release for individuals. However. annoyance swearing tends to increase stress for individuals. This subsequently improves both individual and group well being. 2005). it is wrong to simply position speech styles into two mutually 496 Figure 1.6 they are coping. Interaction may exist between swearing and gender. etc. age. One of the most significant societal norms about swearing is the stereotypical difference in the way that men and women use taboo language. Conversely. Moderating factors Two different types of factors may interfere with the spread of profanity from the society into organizations. A traditionally held norm implies that women tend to use a more prestigious style of speech than men. Gender and swearing We will discuss two issues – societal norms relating to gender and the double standard applied to males and females. and different professions. 2001) (Figure 1). retail. such as industrial. 1922). The other factor relates to group characteristics including sector of activity. Wajnryb (2003) offers advice for executives who have to make staff redundant: “If you’re worried about which laid-off employee is going to show up with a semi-automatic and shoot up the office.LODJ 28. and avoid swearing (Jespersen. academic. variety of cultural norms. One type is individual characteristics such as gender (our focus here). office-based.. Dichotomy of types of swearing . Other norms indicate the higher tendency of male leaders to be expressive (Callahan et al. be wary of the non-swearers”. and hinders positive group norms and cohesion. hampering both individuals’ and groups’ well being. religion and ethnic background. A cessation of swearing indicates that intervention is required.

we developed the following emergent model (Figure 2). Attitudes towards language represent a similar double standard by gender. 1997). but slightly more than males in mixed-sex groups (Limbrick. Significantly. it is generally not permissive to swearing language. and instead. We propose that the way swearing permeates the workplace will be subject to workplace characteristics and other moderating factors. women use swearing to add emphasis to their speech. For example. Research has found that to describe “women’s speech” in universal terms is an overgeneralization (Cameron and Coates. and how their impacts Swearing at work 497 . 1992. 2003).exclusive groups by gender (Hughes. Model development Following the above discussion. in which males who are promiscuous are revered. Thus. The norm of women swearing less is not empirically supported. swearing may prevail and be generally accepted. Consequently. Instead. the taboos conceal a double standard. such hypotheses were not supported by empirical research (Limbrick. Women speaking in informal single-sex groups tend to swear far more than men perceive that they would (Limbrick. but promiscuous women are considered to be in some way immoral. in order to assert their presence in a mixed-sex group and prevent the conversation from being male-dominated (Limbrick. While the traditional assertion is not totally false. 1991). it is perhaps more a description of how earlier writers felt that women ought to talk (Coates. female swore slightly less than the males in single-sex groups. the spreading of swearing language will be moderated by sector of activity and type of professions. but that is not because men’s swearing is considered to be a linguistic style worth emulating. Women tend to swear more in mixed company. as female swearers are often perceived to be of a low moral standing. and working class women tend to be thought of by the middle and upper classes as being more promiscuous. examine each case for the potential difference. The use of swearing by women has been found to be more widespread than many previously believed (de Klerk. 1991). p. However. Men are indeed likely to swear less in the company of women. 1991). Often. Scholars should avoid stereotypical classification of gender-based apparent language use. 1991). 7). A particular example is societal attitudes towards promiscuity. both sector of activity and professions are decisive factors that can prevent or enable the spread of swearing language from society to organizations. Sector of activity and professions We argue that at the group level. 1992. Baruch and Hall. Stapleton. 1958. 1991). 1988. In an informal social setting. Some will still regard swearing as a taboo. there is evidence to suggest that avoidance of swearing by middle and upper class women is based on their desire to avoid being thought of as promiscuous (Gordon. Limbrick. Swearing is associated with the working classes. 2004). rather than mirroring the perceived female style as a form of linguistic accommodation. This may be an attempt to prevent offence. whereas others are open to accept and apply swearing language within the workplace boundaries. The model refers to the distinction between social swearing and annoyance swearing. Western society has many deep-seated norms related to taboo subjects and gender. although an academic environment can have high stress levels (Caplow and McGee. 1986). in the construction or food industries.

1995). Research of this type is an ethical minefield. Firms tend to be reluctant to admit that swearing characterizes part of their operation. The study will potentially be intrusive. as pilot studies and anecdotal evidence indicated that in some professions (e. 2005). with implications to the organizational level (Klein and Kozlowski. . The study design examined whether swearing follows societal norms. The firm may expect some consideration in return for their investment of staff time. A more relevant and feasible way to collect sensitive data is action research (Jankowicz. This model combines individual and group levels of analysis. where the researcher is engaged in the organization as a participant. A direct.g. time-consuming. we examined further aspects of gender and culture. 2000). Participants may initially be shy about their conversations being recorded. An emergent model for the consequences of swearing at workplace manifest themselves. In addition. Method While the model presented above fits well with a positivist approach of listing and testing an explicit set of hypotheses. and disruptive to the individuals or organizations involved. The firm will be concerned about its reputation and image. 1998): . and whether the two forms of social swearing and annoyance swearing exist separately in organizational settings.g. whereas the employees will be concerned about control of the data in order to maintain good relationships with their colleagues and employer. This helps to overcome the above mentioned issues. .LODJ 28. Social swearing is seen to correlate to positive outcomes on stress release and group cohesion. and will tend to modify their behaviour in order to create a good impression. and needs to follow guidelines for conducting research on sensitive topics (Lee. and enables discussion of real life . high-end retail) swearing would not exist. “front door” approach is troublesome for a number of reasons (Stubbe. We did not target a wide variety of professions. questionnaires). Obtaining accurate data requires a long time frame. Collecting first-hand data on swearing is a challenging task. the nature of the subject would not allow for using a conventional quantitative method (e.6 498 Figure 2.

1977). and that this phenomenon is a pervasive societal norm (Bailey and Timm. who appeared to hold an informal seniority within the sub-culture. Their physical separation meant that there was no danger of the packers’ swearing being overheard by customers. Initially. breaks were taken at different times and it was rare for the office and packing staff to mix in an informal setting. professional Harmonious. This was attributed to the firm’s relatively high turnover of temporary agency staff. as a new temporary employee he was not accepted as part of the close-knit social group of long-standing. which reinforced within-group solidarity. All agency temps were subjected to verbal derision and minor physical abuse. Swearing at work 499 Office Gender Customer contact Managerial supervision Visibility of operational failures Language used Social relationships between co-workers Background noise Almost exclusively female High. boisterous Radio station Table I. calm None Goods in/out Exclusively male None Low None Coarse. The premises featured an office/administrative department at one end of a large building. or social swearing which was directed at inanimate objects rather than a particular person. this would immediately produce a cessation of any expletive-laden conversation about taboo topics. These two departments had unique sub-cultures. While using the same staff canteen. Further. and a goods in/goods out department at the other end. equally divided between office and warehouse environments. with considerable amounts of swearing Competitive. although the second author was classified within the organization’s cultural setup as being part of the packers’ sub-culture. Participative case study: a mail-order warehouse The second author had the opportunity to observe workplace swearing while working in a small British retail enterprise.in organizations (Dutton. The two groups maintained an “us & them” mentality. The data collection for this study was conducted while the second author was employed in a temporary position in a mail-order warehouse. If a female office worker walked past the packing floor on the way to the rest-room. a permanent packer. This aligns to the popular view that men use few expletives in the company of the opposite sex. The firm is a mail-order operation employing 14 people. . particularly from Ernest (pseudonym). This often took the form of swearing insults. The packers did not swear in the presence of female office staff. He initially either used traditional “polite” language. Using this ethnographic approach was advocated by Analoui and Kakabadse (1993) and Hodson (2005). permanently employed packers. based on the features shown in Table I. data was collected in focus groups of part-time workers in a variety of organizations in the southern USA and in England. 2003). by telephone High High Polite.

and as expected. . most chefs have quite foul mouths. While we found unanimous agreement that swearing is never used when serving customers. They present a case where there is a clear separation between “working area” and “customer area” (Orwell.6 500 semi-playful punches to the torso. Nevertheless. and among the women. and examples were gathered via six focus group discussions (four in a southern USA state. For example. and not delivered. note that language will be internal to the kitchen staff. he had identified the profane linguistic “initiation rite” for inclusion in the packers’ social group. though. Ernest was seemingly “testing” the new temps to see if they were worthy of being included in the social group of permanent packers. and used it successfully. A wry smile appeared on Ernest’s face as he turned and walked away. the second author was taking a gamble that it would be accepted as social swearing. the responses reflected certain variance amongst sectors and occupational groups (excluding affluent sectors). muttering some profane insult. everyone will just say “Oh for fxxx’s sake”. “Well fxxxxxg get on with it then. even to the waiters unless it’s in jest. They were working in a variety of sectors. ” Gender was an issue. Full time and part time employees. A UK restaurant worker (cook) described the situation: . tripping. Restaurants are one work environment from which a number of the cases emerged. vignettes. everybody from the wait-staff to bartenders to managers and cooks swear on a daily basis . 1933). separate from men’s close proximity”. a female waiter said that “. After this incident. However. 1996). swearing was not an exclusively male phenomenon. This example features evidence of a positive politeness strategy. Focus groups and other evidence The following cases. . one of whom said “That’s fighting talk”. where a female staff member indicated that: “swearing occurred usually among the men. . the second author found himself being invited by Ernest to join in with packers’ social activities from which he had previously been excluded. mostly students in class discussions in groups of 10-20. you lazy cxxx”. for example. or they’ve been very very useless. etc. . two in England) as well as additional anecdotal evidence. After a couple of months. The gamble paid off. He could hear mocking gasps of incredulity from the other permanent packers. a part time employee suggested: “I think they use it to show their manhood”. if you have 5 checks on and another big one comes on. even if it’s to themselves. . Ernest was verbally abusing the second author. In a different case where most swearing was by males. were asked to reflect on both positive and negative use and “application” of swearing in the workplace. . . the picture was very different for the kitchen staff. and attempting to belittle his efforts by citing that he (Ernest) had a higher workload. The second author replied in a very loud voice. . in a different workplace. separate from women’s close proximity. just to let off some steam.LODJ 28. . By mirroring each others’ whinge with a whinge of their own. a noteworthy incident occurred. It seems that after demonstrating a minimum required level of skill at the work. to an outsider this may have appeared to be an example of annoyance swearing. In another restaurant. . the chefs are displaying a classic solidarity-building response (Coates. Indeed. . It didn’t matter what gender .

a member of the support staff recalled swearing among nurses of mixed gender. . ”. When customers are near though. Our contribution to these pioneering studies has explored the use of profanity in organizational settings. all of those foul words cease for the time being. such as in – “Ah. but when the customer leaves there is usually a lot of cussing . Employees never cuss directly at these customers. 2004). given the relatively prestigious nature of the environment. such as the impact of stress release on well being. 501 Discussion and conclusions Swearing is an existing organizational phenomenon. Similarly. the regular foul language starts again. During the breaks the female nurses would swear. The swearing under focus represented both social and annoyance swearing. . and applied a qualitative study to validate the model. . “The ‘Oh sxxx’ was just a way to tell others about your own increasing stress level” as the nurse explained. (Sxxx was the favourite swear-word in the hospital reported by the female nurse above). This was unexpected. swearing would come into conversation to emphasize dissatisfaction.. but not necessarily in a negative. she and her co-workers would “. It is interesting how people don’t want to offend customers but they don’t mind offending co-workers! Swearing at work The issue of customers causing cessation of employees’ foul language also came from an employee of an American bank. Their most used expletive was “sxxx” perhaps corresponding to the nature of a common cause of their stress – a mess in the bathroom or bed. in all their forms. but rarely studied and reported in literature (Daly et al. . On hanging up the phone after dealing with an abusive customer. Working in nursing home for elderly people in England. We found that employees use swearing on a continuous basis. We will avoid use of their explicit form: “What the fxxx?”. .A male retail sales employee from Texas also said: I work with people who cuss or swear all the time as regular part of their immediate vocabulary. He pointed out: “many times customers will become rude and verbally abusive. a female employee described her work as a customer service representative as one where she must be “extra nice”. man”. We focused on the central section of the model. that sucks”. as the antecedents and the outcomes. and as soon as the customers are out of ear shot. It is usually restricted to low level employees. . but not in front of the patients. but in some environments may spread through line management to professional and executive levels. . What exactly do they say? The most prominent expletives were of the “four letter” variety. . curse the person as if they were doing it to them on the phone . “This is a fxxxxxg waste of time”. or create a good impression (it was fxxxxxg amazing). . . “sxxx” came a close second. or even when discussing matters with customers. especially when an incident with a patient had caused elevated levels of stress. The data suggests regular use of profanity to express solidarity within a community of practice. During breaks. We have developed a model for understanding the antecedents and consequences of swearing in the workplace. were already discussed in the literature. “Fxxx you. . sxxxx. sometimes people “slip” and curse while customers are nearby. a number of people reported that when swearing is the norm. A similar case came from a female nurse assistant in a Texas hospital. ” Nevertheless. However.

Managerial implications Leaders might find themselves in an uncomfortable situation in which they are not quite sure how to behave. 1999).. 1986). In certain aspects where there is a physical risk. 1989). and deliberately allow swearing. regulated work environment. might lead them to consider a ban on foul language. 2002).6 502 abusive manner. rather helping to dissipate it. Our study suggests that contrary to this inclination. In doing so. Younger managers and professionals were found to be more permissive in what they accept as ethical behaviour (Longenecker et al... Our findings match with the general positive outcomes of permissive culture and leadership. such as problem drinking. and may lead to valued. they may be seriously de-motivated. This could seriously decrease morale and work motivation.. Swearing came as a social phenomenon (to reflect solidarity and enhance group cohesion) or as a psychological phenomenon (to release stress). and teaching leadership in such situations can be a tricky issue (Hay and Hodgkinson. and bring a law suit against the organization. it could work against the possibility of developing self-managed teams (Bertolotti et al. permissive norms were the strongest predictor of highly negative outcomes (Bacharach et al. Indeed. This allows the identities of organizational sub-cultures to be maintained. members of organizations that experience high levels of stress in a hectic organizational context had a more permissive collective conception of well being (Lansisalmi et al. Apart from gender. age may serve as a moderator for the spreading of swearing language to the workplace. Their immediate instinct. It generates greater levels of stress. citing constructive dismissal. A ban on swear words may represent strong leadership. and to demonstrate strong leadership in a strict. skilled staff wanting to leave. In extreme cases. This approach should acknowledge that the gap may also be age related. abusive and offensive swearing should be eliminated in any organizational context. The primary issue for management is whether or not to apply permissive leadership culture to workplace. Of course. Attempting to change the norms of a sub-culture would take a long time (Higgins and McAllaster. in line with the distinction of norms (Gattiker and Kelley. If an employee feels that they have been the subject of a strongly worded offensive outburst by their supervisor which belittles their conduct or capability. 2002). Most of the cases were reported by employees at the lower levels of organizational hierarchies. A more permissive leadership would mean finding a way to bridge the gap between management and employees. such as that of the packers in our warehouse example. Therefore. 2005). age was a factor too. 2006). However. such a ban would remove the source of solidarity that binds small communities of practice. a permissive culture is not always the correct choice.LODJ 28. a permissive culture can benefit the organization. They may be torn between applying strong leadership or permissive leadership (Tannenbaum and Schmidt. However. 2000). based on their education and long-term experience with the executive levels of the organization. as opposed to permissive leadership. It is clear from the studies that executives use swearing language less frequently. The majority of our participants in the focus groups (and all the workers in the case study) were below 30. they may interpret the outburst as a dismissal. and the leadership may not wish or be able to invest effort in the possibly futile exercise of eliminating non-abusive swearing. .

The most probable result of such a change is that the linguistic style of each group would evolve. profanity must be seriously discouraged or banned. and conversely the women would tend to swear more. taboo language serves the needs of people for developing and maintaining solidarity and as a mechanism to cope with stress. The challenge is to master the “art” of knowing when to turn a blind eye to norms of communication that. protecting the public with whom they interact. our study suggested that in many cases. firms must be aware of the dangers posed by language which causes discrimination or harassment. Management is not an accurate. it is not sufficient to interpret management responsibility as a reason to introduce a draconian code of conduct which bans swearing outright. Certainly in most scenarios. in order to gain approval. . Identifying features of sub-cultures or communities of practice. To generalize within the limitations explained earlier. From managerial philosophy to policy and practice Managers have many responsibilities. and won (Pallot. do not confer with their own standards. 2002). In controlling non-discriminatory taboo language. we do not suggest that organizations should deliberately adopt profane language. If swearing is to be allowed. one may argue that co-location and better integration of the departments could lead to improvements in operational performance. 1984). This awareness allows the formation a policy which defines the linguistic standards for the workplace Swearing at work 503 . Allowing an official “no swearing” policy to be informally ignored in some contexts may be a sensible outcome. it is important to differentiate witty profanity that is consensual within all the members of a group. in one case a manager described his personal assistant to her face as being “an intolerable bitch on a Monday morning”. 1996). or “equal opportunity swearing” (Risser. The risk of litigation. Evidence has been presented which demonstrates that allowing employees to use swearing as part of their workplace discourse can have identifiable social benefits. sued for constructive dismissal. as the cultural boundaries shifted in an informal setting. including protecting the welfare of their employees. . . When applying this philosophy to workplace language. in particular in the presence of customers or senior staff. . This could be superficially explained as being compliant with accommodation theory (Bell. such as that prevailing in most Western environments. in which speakers tend to change their linguistic style to mirror that of the addressee. The need for employees to verbally “let off steam”. However. Cross-gender workplace interactions. from offensive profanity which can contravene legislation. In a litigious society. In the warehouse case. or lead to civil law suits. and upholding the reputation of the organization.For example. the men would tend to swear less. natural science. in order to balance the effects of: . However. and in many ways can be seen as an “art”. managers need to understand how their staff feel about swearing. The PA immediately resigned. Leaders should analyze the wants and needs of all the parties involved. Strong versus permissive leadership.

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R. S. His application of language styles were a development of his sociolinguistics studies. (1988). He works in strategic development and marketing for a UK construction services organization. 137. Careers Division. (2003). and Linstead. P. Language in Society. Westwood. 555-64. (1999).Swallow. Wajnryb. R. “Desk rage on the rise. 64 No. He published extensively in the areas of Global and Strategic HRM. 4. including over 75 papers in refereed academic journals. 2003). E. (accessed 29 November.com Or visit our web site for further details: www. Editor of Career Development International and former Chair. Careers. Wetzel. NJ. Y. (2001). (2001). New York Times. Vol. He specialises in developing continuous improvement initiatives for the sales documentation function of the organization. (2004). (2001). 15 July. London. Sydney Morning Herald. Harvard Business Review. London. “Protecting workers form travel rage”. Vol. R.emeraldinsight. Tahminicioglu. “If cussing’s a curse. Sage. Misbehavior in Organizations: Theory. (1986). 6 No. just deal with it”. “Are ‘powerless’ communication strategies the Japanese norm?”. Mahwah. Research and Management. Organizations in Depth. 49. Logistics & Transport Focus. E. Tannenbaum. and Technology Management.H. 4. About the authors Yehuda Baruch is a Professor of Management at UEA Norwich UK. p. St Petersburg Times. W. Yehuda Baruch is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: y. (2004). Sage. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Academy of Management. Swearing at work 507 To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight. not cussing’s worse”. “Excerpts from ‘how to choose a leadership pattern’”.ac. The Language of Organization.uk Stuart Jenkins graduated from Norwich Business School. R. Vol. 17 No. and Schmidt. pp. held visiting positions at the University of Texas at Arlington. 27 June. “The 4-letter-word patrol is in pursuit”. 9. Y. and Wietz. Trigaux.com/reprints .baruch@uae. and London Business School. C. Further reading Gabriel. Vardi. p.

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