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Office Etiquette: Swearing at Work

Some experts say employees need to swear at work to blow off steam and build camaraderie, but aren’t there nobler ways to vent?

This summer, the Web has been abuzz with blogs defending profanity’s place at the office. The hubbub over swearing at work has been fueled by two events: President Barack Obama’s use of the word “ass” (as in “whose ass to kick”) during an interview about the Gulf oil spill with Matt Lauer on the Today Show in June, and Goldman Sachs’ decision earlier this month to ban the use of swear words in e-mail.

The president’s “a-bomb” prompted Harvard Business Review Senior Editor Dan McGinn to wonder whether it’s ever appropriate for leaders to swear. McGinn maintains that even though it was a controversial comment, Obama deliberately and strategically used “a mild expletive” as a rhetorical tool: to show his anger and “to try to better connect with voters’ emotions” at a time when he was being criticized for reacting to the crisis too tepidly.

Citing research on swearing in the workplace and reflecting on his own use of curse words in the office, McGinn notes how some managers and corporate leaders might use vulgar language “to show candor, strong feeling or to try to create a we’re-all-in-this-together esprit de corps.”

Where McGinn is measured and thoughtful about swearing at work, New America Foundation Fellow Reihan Salam, writing about Goldman Sachs’s profanity prohibition for The Daily Beast, is unconditional. He believes using swear words in the office is an employee’s inalienable right, and he calls Goldman’s ban on cursing in e-mail “an assault on the dignity of labor.” How high-minded of him.

Read the full version of this blog entry by Meridith Levinson on Career Connection