The confusing, controversial case of workplace profanity comes under new scrutiny.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may be revising its standards for profane outbursts and offensive statements of a racial or sexual nature. On September 5, NLRB requested briefs to get public input on whether “to adhere to, modify, or overrule the standard applied to previous cases in which extremely profane or racially offensive language was judged not to lose the protection of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).”
NLRB chair John F. Ring said of the announcement, “The Board’s request for briefings on this important topic reflects its long-standing practice of seeking input from interested parties when the Board believes it can benefit from such briefings. We look forward to considering the views of all interested parties.”
There has been some confusion and controversy regarding this issue in recent years. At least one court accused the NLRB of being “remarkably indifferent to the concerns and sensitivity” that lead employers to adopt civility rules. Both federal and state laws subject employers to civil liability if they fail to maintain a workplace that is “free of racial, sexual, and other harassment.”
However, in one recent case a judge found that a worker was protected despite an obscene outburst directed at a supervisor; while two other instances of profanity were determined to not be protected, even though one included racially charged language.
Of course, abusive language should never be acceptable. However, your employees may actually think “innocent” cursing isn’t a big deal. In one survey, 57% of employees said that they swear in the workplace, while 41% felt that swearing is “too casual and unprofessional.” About two-thirds (66%) said that they are more likely to swear if their boss does, while 25% said “it doesn’t matter.” A third (33%) said they would not consider a position at a company where swearing is strictly banned.
It is useful to clarify in your policies and procedures what is acceptable language in the workplace. Elsewhere, consider training your team leaders to role model appropriate, respectful language for others.