Look out workplace potty mouths - swearing at work a no-go

Those who curse like a sailor in the workplace, are at risk of bullying others.
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Those who curse like a sailor in the workplace, are at risk of bullying others.

The days of dropping pithy curses at work could be numbered with a workplace safety expert saying a change in government guidelines will make employers clean up the cussing.

Workplace bullying expert Allan Halse said it will be potentially easier for bosses to be pinged by workers who are offended by swearing.

And there are already cases involving earthy professions such as firefighting which could end up closing the door on swearing.

The move to wash workers' mouths out with soap come in a week in which a Waikato mayor conceded he used the term w****r and a Hamilton builder was ordered to pay up in an employment case after he used the f-word in a text to a worker he called a 'baby'. 

But while some are calling a clean-up political correctness gone mad Halse said the days of cursing like a sailor are 'last-century' and people shouldn't expect to be able to use offensive language around others.

Halse said a change in workplace bullying guidelines in 2014 removed the need for employees to prove intent when it came to bullying behaviour. This means that workplaces with bad language were more vulnerable to a workplace bullying complaint from an employee even if the language wasn't directed at an individual.

"If someone's on the receiving end of those [words] and it is repeated and has a detrimental impact, that's how you get to the bullying threshold, even suggestive glances or dirty looks," he said.

"The person who's the recipient of it, is the person who decides it's ok. You can offend people without intending to."

"The [male-dominated jobs] are where you have isolated groups of people that are living in the last century, they've never reached civilisation. They're still behaving in a way that is foreign to sophisticated society, it's just not acceptable [to swear in the workplace] anymore," he said.

Halse said he had been involved with work like firefighting and ambulance crewing which developed cultures that often included salty language.

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 "A lot of the staunch blokes think it's ok for people to be rough and swear and do all that stuff, and it's not."

Halse said he was no puritan and grew up in the country where his choice of vocabulary would offend the unoffendable.

"I could be as bad as anybody else, I was brought up with four brothers and no sisters and we were rough as old boots, we were country bumpkins, so it's not until you actually get in amongst society, that you realise there are behaviours that you have to comply with.

"Just because we're big and strong, doesn't mean that we want to be called a w****r or a whole bunch of names."

Waikato District Fire Commander Roy Breeze said like any other organisation, they have their challenges.

"Yes you get a unique culture [within the New Zealand Fire Service] because people are literally living together, particularly in a stressful environment like emergency services, but that doesn't give anyone reason to offend," he said.

"We do not tolerate any bullying or words that can create offence within the group or external to the group."

Read more: 

Builder awarded $5000 after being told to stop being a baby

Waikato mayor's profanity sparks probe

Workplace bullying just as prevalent as domestic violence, according to forum

Waikato Registered Master Builders Association president Steve Ross, said policy set by the "PC brigade" is already having a detrimental effect to the building industry.

"As far as PC discussions go, we are going a bit over the top, where these young guys seem to be wrapped up in cotton wool, they want to be paid $50 an hour when they've just left school and have no skills whatsoever, but they think that the world owes them something and they have every right under the sun," he said.

Ross said swearing is commonplace among trades, but generally workers are encouraged not to swear around customers.

"The whole industry is trying to tidy up their behaviour and the way they talk, especially if every second word's a swear word. It's not appropriate anymore," he said.

Employment law specialist Andrea Twaddle, said the workplace environment and its culture and customs were considered when looking into any allegations of inappropriate language.

She said the tipping point will often be whether the comment is directed at a person or whether it's conversational.

Waikato University linguist lecturer Dr Andreea Calude, said language changes all the time and it was about context.

She said when one person swears, the meaning that they associate with the word may not be the meaning another associates.

"There's nothing about the sounds of swear words together that causes us some sort of unpleasant feeling, or the spelling, it's all convention," she said.

 - Stuff

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