Monday, July 19, 2010

Is swearing bullying or a career tool?


OPINION: Swearing at work is common. When you think about it, the "F" word often passes as a substitute for "very".

Swear words are thrown into everyday sentences. You can hear all sorts of people doing it, from people in the canteen to the boss.

And yet, it’s not advisable to let it rip in the workplace. As Jillian Insley writes in The Guardian, the problem with swearing is that it can often turn into bullying. It’s okay to curse under your breath but it’s different if you are getting stuck into someone. There have been rulings here that using the F-word at staff can constitute bullying. Apart from that, it’s never a great idea to swear in front of the boss, unless he’s doing it all the time and everyone else is.

But then, the problem is not the words but the behaviour. So therein lies the problem. Swearing is now part of everyday life but you should not do it every day, everywhere. What are the rules in today’s workplace?
There are those who say swearing is necessary in today’s workplace. It’s a way of venting your spleen and releasing pent up emotion.

One study from Britain’s University of East Anglia finds that swearing can relieve stress. When used in a non-abusive manner, it can also enable the development of personal relationships among co-workers because it reveals their personality and opens up the lines of communication.

"Social swearing" in private conversations with colleagues allows people to show candour and strong feeling. It can be used to create a certain esprit de corps, like "we're-all-in-this-together".
Significantly, researchers have also found that there are more instances of swearing in male-dominated work places. And according to another study, there are women who insist that swearing is a way of getting ahead because you become more assertive, particularly in a high tech culture.

The problem occurs when people don’t know what the rules are, or when they start throwing around F-bombs in front of customers and clients.

US management expert Bob Sutton knows a fair bit about swearing, having an authored a book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't.

Sutton argues that swearing can be used strategically to help build a certain company culture. He suggests some obvious rules. First, if you’re not sure, don’t do it. Secondly, remember there is a difference between saying things in private and going public.

Also, dropping the occasional F-word can be effective for shock value, if that’s what you’re trying to achieve. Besides, there are times where you may want to offend people, particularly if they’re stupid, incompetent and generally clueless. And the most important part is to remember the norms of the organisation. There are some places where if you don’t swear, you are looked on with suspicion.

If Sutton is right, swearing at work can actually be used strategically to boost your career.

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