Monday, July 25, 2022

Cursing in the workplace

According to one survey, 57% of American employees admit to swearing at work. (Count me in the "yes" column.)

Where is the line between swearing as harmless workplace banter and swearing as harmful unlawful harassment? The seminal case is Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, which involved the female plaintiff's offense to the salty language used by male co-workers in nearby cubicles.

In ruling on whether that language (and the employer's inaction towards it) could constitute an unlawful sexually hostile work environment, the court differentiated between general, gender-nonspecific swear words, such as shit and fuck, (maybe improper, but not necessarily unlawful) as compared to gender-specific epithets such as bitch, whore, and, the granddaddy of them all, cunt (actionable as sexual harassment).
[T]he context may illuminate whether the use of an extremely vulgar, gender-neutral term such as "fucking" would contribute to a hostile work environment. "Fucking" can be used as an intensifying adjective before gender-specific epithets such as "bitch." In that context, "fucking" is used to strengthen the attack on women, and is therefore relevant to the Title VII analysis. However, the obscene word does not itself afford a gender-specific meaning. Thus, when used in context without reference to gender, "fuck" and "fucking" fall more aptly under the rubric of general vulgarity that Title VII does not regulate.…

[W]ords and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff.… It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as "bitches," "whores" and "cunts," to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way. The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically: "and you are a 'bitch,' too."

  • General vulgarities are not actionable as harassment.
  • Severe or pervasive gender-specific words or phrases are actionable as harassment even if the words are not specifically directed at one employee, but merely generally used in the workplace.
  • Severe or pervasive conduct targeting a protected group also qualifies as actionable harassment.

Yet, in the day-to-day management of your employees, you should not get bogged down in the legal minutia of whether one employee calling another employee a %@$&* is, or is not, actionable unlawful harassment. Employers should take seriously all harassment complaints in the workplace. If an employee complains about profanity, don't ignore the complaint. Most cases of workplace profanity won't turn into a lawsuit. We're all adults and we should be able to handle hearing an obscenity here and there. Nevertheless, if an employee complains, use it as a tool to educate your employees about appropriate versus inappropriate language, the value of context when choosing words, the importance of being tolerant and considerate around all employees, and the overall value of professionalism. Otherwise, the context in which you might find yourself is that of a lawsuit.

All of brings us to the real purpose of today's post — answering Friday's trivia question.
What is the word for a string of typographical symbols (such as %@$&*!) used in place of an obscenity, especially in comic strips?

The correct answer: grawlix

Congrats to Ken Dzierzawiec, the lone person to send me the correct answer. Your prize is my eternal esteem for your wealth of useless, yet fun, knowledge.