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Ask Liz: swearing in the office

Ask Liz: swearing in the office
Dear Liz, our new team assistant works really hard and produces great work but she has a very informal manner and often drops swear words into conversations when talking to colleagues. What can I do to encourage her to act more professionally, without taking away her friendliness?

When exploring these sorts of situations, it is interesting to note that the very thing we notice in others' behaviour may often reflect our own. Other people can be very annoying can't they? Perhaps we too irritate others in ways we are completely unaware of. How might you be falling short of other people's expectations of you? What are the standards we expect of ourselves and others and who wrote these rules? What happens for us when others don't do as we wish them to?

Added to this swearing can still be seen by many to be big and cool. And in many work places, these things may be allowed to pass unchecked until they become a problem.  For example, if clients, suppliers or employees start complaining about the things they don't find acceptable.

In relation to the swearing I would be interested to know if you swear or whether you believe you mindfully choose the times and company in which you decide it's ok to swear. Perhaps your swearing may not always land as well as it might with some people and on some occasions.

I am also interested in why we swear and how we might change this.  What is our relationship with swearing and how does it serve us? The English language is rich with alternatives, so perhaps we should try them more often. There are some useful tips to help you change.

Is the team assistant the only person to swear? I doubt it. What does her line manager have to say about it and is it an issue for them? If the swearing is an issue then I would advise you give her some constructive feedback by acknowledging what she does well, her friendliness, the volume of work etc and ask if she is aware that she swears. State what the impact of this is on you and give specific examples. Very often people are completely oblivious to what they are saying and doing. You may want to suggest that she tries replacing her swear words with another word or to consider whether swearing is appropriate or necessary. Try not to sound patronising but you could also remind her of the need to be respectful of people from different cultures and values who don't find it either cool, funny or appropriate to be exposed to swearing.

If everyone else around her in the team is swearing, then it is difficult to single her out.  You could suggest setting up a team “swear box” as a fun way to try and curb people’s tongues, with the proceeds going to an agreed charity.

With reference to her "very informal behaviour" I would be interested to know who she is being informal with and what exactly is she guilty of? One person's informal may be another person's flirting or another person's lack of professionalism. Has she been briefed on how the team works with certain clients, how the team communicates with particular clients and where the boundaries are? What are the general standards and overall culture at the agency? Has a client complained yet or are you fearful that their behaviour may have crossed the line? This needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

If you have specific examples of this informal behaviour and how it is or may be perceived as inappropriate, then you should bring it to her attention.

If you have a personal issue with people swearing in front of you then you should try and be upfront about this and talk to her about it. If your clients are complaining, then you must certainly  let her know. If everyone else around you and her are cool with how she behaves then it is worth thinking through whether this is something that you either find genuinely offensive or just irritating.  You can then decide whether or not you can live with it, having discussed it with this person, or whether you want to escalate it further on a more formal basis.

Last updated 25/08/2016

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