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The fine line when it comes to workplace swearing

Date: 02/08/2017

Last week, Prime newsreader, Eric Young dropped an f-bomb on live television.

The slip up occurred at the end of the nightly broadcast after Young had signed off and assumed he was no longer on air. While speaking with someone off screen about the lack of a weather segment during the evening’s broadcast, Young made the comment “Oh f…, absolutely”.

Young has been in hot water before after being caught making a double fingered salute to a colleague during a broadcast. However, this situation appears to have been more innocuous. Young believed the show was over and his use of the proverbial, which was in the context of a casual conversation with a colleague, was not of a nature where disciplinary action would be warranted.

So where is the line when it comes to swearing in the workplace – accidental or otherwise?

Like a lot of things in employment law, swearing falls into one of those grey areas where the degree of offensiveness will depend upon the circumstances.

Workplace culture is one of the key factors that goes to the heart of whether swearing is accepted as a norm, or alternatively viewed as inappropriate and capable of resulting in disciplinary action. Obviously, some workplaces have a tolerance for more robust language while others will be less sympathetic to colourful turns of phrase. In the former, disciplinary action will be much harder to justify in respect of the odd swear word.

Any policies and expectations that the employer has in place will be important too. Where an employee has overstepped clear boundaries that are set out in black and white, the case for formal action will be much stronger.

The context in which the swearing occurs is also relevant. For example, an employee who accidently blurts out an expletive on a worksite after dropping a hammer on their foot is far less likely to face disciplinary action than an employee who uses vulgar language in a meeting with clients.

Regardless of whether swearing is par for the course though, profanity that occurs in the context of abuse directed at a co-worker will almost always cross the line into unreasonableness and may well be viewed as bullying or victimisation. Given the strict obligations on employers to ensure their staff are afforded a safe and healthy place of work, there is a duty to treat behaviour like this seriously and to take all reasonably practicable steps to prevent it from recurring.

A clear example of this occurred in the case of John Coffey who was a sports reporter who wrote for the Christchurch Press.

Coffey found himself in strife after a complaint was made about the way he had spoken to the Paper’s Sports Editor. The incident occurred after Coffey picked up a mistake in the editing of one of his stories.  This caused Coffey go to off on a tirade in which he told the Paper’s Sports Editor to ‘leave his f.. copy alone’ and that ‘he always f…s it up’.

Coffey was dismissed soon after. The Employer’s decision was based on the comments, which Coffey did not dispute, as well as prior warnings that Coffey had been given for similar past conduct. This included one instance where Coffey threatened to “wring the f..g neck” of another employee.

The dismissal was challenged first in the Employment Relations Authority and then in the Employment Court. Both times, the dismissal was found to be justified. One factor the Court put particular weight on in reaching its decision was the Paper’s concern that if Coffey were to lose his temper in the future, other staff could be subjected to the same disparaging and obscene language which could be distressing for them.

Most people would regard Eric Young’s f-bomb as amusing, and not a big deal. Workplace expectations have changed such that the use of robust language is much less likely to cause offense than in the past. We have moved a long way from the days of the 1939 film, Gone with the Wind when the famous quote “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a dam”, was objected to by film censors.

But even if workplace swearing has become more common and acceptable, there is still a line to be drawn. Profanity that is directed at a person with the intent to bully or abuse is not acceptable or tolerated, and nor should it ever be.