5 Steps for Dealing With Potty-Mouth Employees

Workers who upset co-workers and customers with habitual profanity need to leave if they won't stop.

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By John Boitnott


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While at work, employees are generally expected to follow a series of unwritten rules. The clothes they wear, the way they behave, and especially, the words they use are expected to adhere to certain norms. Whether or not the rules are outlined in company policies, employees usually moderate their behavior enough that bosses don't have to constantly state them.

Unfortunately, in any group of people there will occasionally be one or two who stray outside those norms. This puts managers in a difficult position because they want to encourage employees' individuality. But at the same time, employees and customers may be offended by those behaviors, leading to lower morale and even lost customers. Profanity can become a serious issue in the workplace, especially if measures aren't taken beforehand to discipline the behavior. Here are a few things you can do to prevent and stop profanity in the workplace.

1. Set a policy.

Check your company policies for verbiage that relates to profanity. If you don't already have a policy that specifically mentions profanity, edit your policies to include it. You'll then need to distribute the revised version and have everyone confirm that they've read it. If you have a policy in place, you may simply need to send an email out to remind everyone about it. In some cases, you'll likely find that this small reminder is enough to curb the problem.

Related: Do Startup Cultures Have to Be Profane?

2. Don't assume.

Some supervisors may feel that if nobody has complained, nobody is offended. This is a risky assumption. You could one day be surprised by a harassment complaint for allowing a hostile work environment to continue. Simply overhearing profanity can be enough for someone to initiate a complaint.

3. Consider context.

There are different types of profanity, each bringing its own concern. Mild profanity as a way of relieving stress may not bother anyone, although it still puts a business at risk, especially if customers overhear or new employees are brought into the environment. Off-color jokes, with or without profanity, are far more offensive to people than a word or two spoken in the heat of the moment. However, when profanity can be seen as bullying behavior, supervisors must take action immediately. If one employee is cursing at another, the victim of that behavior will likely feel dejected, especially if management knows about it and does nothing.

4. Address the employee privately.

If you've reminded a worker of the policy and their behavior hasn't changed, take the employee aside for a private conversation. Simply mention the language and explain why it could be a problem in the positive culture you're trying to create. In some cases, the employee may not even realize how often he's using offensive language. Offer to work with the employee to help break the bad habit.

Related: How to Give Constructive Feedback to a Toxic Boss

5. Discipline.

There are instances when an employee will refuse to modify bad behaviors, regardless of company policies. In those cases, supervisors will need to take the next step: discipline. Start with a spoken warning and progress to written warnings, if necessary. Use the wording in your written policy to demonstrate that the employee is violating the required conduct you've clearly outlined. If your warnings go unheeded, you may find it necessary to terminate the employee to avoid it impacting your business due to offended clients and reduced morale.

Profanity is common in some environments, but in the workplace, it brings a number of risks. It's important that supervisors address the behavior with an enforceable policy and progress to discipline if necessary. In many instances, a gentle warning may be all it takes to remind workers that a professional environment demands professional word choices.

Related: Managing the Unmanageable: The 6 Most Common Types of Difficult Employees

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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