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Programmers and clients alike will use the F word very casually in my office (IT in rural Australia). It's not an insult but only acts as a qualifier to how difficult (or easy) the situation or problem at hand is.

It is culturally acceptable in this society to use cuss words, and the employee handbook doesn't mention a thing about profanities at the workplace. We now have a new employee who while being local (aware of the loose usage of the F word) keeps saying "no profanity at the workplace" at developer meetings. It is almost impossible for the management to get developers to stop using F for qualifying their emotions.

I have already established that no one has been using any cuss words to insult the new employee. There has been no situation where the new employee could have misunderstood as being insulted. My feeling is he does it to get attention.

How can I convince this new employee to stop trying to change our culture on profanity?

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    Is this person (overly)religious? It might be that he is not ok with profanity at all and not only in the workplace – Corcus Apr 24 '18 at 9:11
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    What is your relation to this employee? Are you their boss? A peer? – David K Apr 24 '18 at 12:25
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    There is a Meta discussion on this question. – David K Apr 24 '18 at 13:40
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    Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use The Workplace Chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. – Lilienthal Apr 24 '18 at 16:48
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    @DavidK I am a peer. – happybuddha Apr 24 '18 at 21:32
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This is not about profanity at all. It's about understanding (or accepting) that different people (and groups) have different rules.

a new employee keeps saying "no profanity at work place"

What is happening here? That person is trying to enforce his personal rules on the group. But he's not in position to make that rules. Simply point that out. You can try to be gentle, eg. "We're not aware of that rule, can you point us where it can be found in company handbook?" Or be rough "Unfortunately, it's not your decision to make such rules here.". Don't do it when there is no time to continue this conversation, because it has to be followed through and explained to that person that using the word is acceptable here and his singular opinion is noted but it is just a personal opinion.

This is it. There are soft (unwritten) rules, and hard (formalized) rules. It's a human's job to sense all the rules of a group and then conform to them. One of the points of trial period is to determine if company culture is compatible with your personal culture. OFC, it's a noble goal to try to change a group for the better (while keeping in mind that one man's "better" is another man's "worse"). But if one wishes for such change to happen, it starts with "Everyone, what do you think about doing X less and Y more?", not with "no X at Z".

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    I will also suggest him to go to management in future if he feels a problem, rather than enforcing policies himself. – VarunAgw Apr 26 '18 at 18:13
  • @Kyralessa 1) Please don't bring up "profanity is like smoking". Smoking is a genuine health hazard while language is not. 2) One can't present entirety of company culture on the interviews - that's what trial period is for. Besides, OP said it's not a culture of this particular company but whole country or region - so it's not up to SO answer to challenge that. – Agent_L May 10 '18 at 13:50
  • @Agent_L, you are writing from a European perspective. Not every country has such a trial period. Also, I think a lot of people would say being around constant profanity is not good for one's mental health. You don't have to agree with that view in order to respect those who hold it by not swearing around them. – user1602 May 10 '18 at 13:54
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    @Kyralessa A lot of people would say that Earth is flat or that vaccines cause autism. An opinion does not deserve respect automatically. Respect has to be earned and to convince others one needs arguments to back up the opinion. My opinion is that self-censorship is much more damaging to mental health because it's a sign of hiding one's true agenda and makes trust impossible. So what? I don't try to impose my opinion onto others - THAT is respect. – Agent_L May 15 '18 at 7:01
  • @Kyralessa Also, equivalent of "trial period" is always present, explicit or implied. You start learning about the company when you start working there and if you learn that company culture is incompatible with your core values, you need to quit for your own sake. Whenever by actively giving notice or by not renewing the trial contract - that's mere technicality. – Agent_L May 15 '18 at 7:13
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If someone in rural Australia can't handle the occasional F word maybe they're not a good fit or they are trying to change the culture of an entire nation. I'm in Sydney and I've worked in large companies where there is no swearing at all and also worked in smaller companies where the F word is one of the nicer everyday cuss words used. I'm not a huge fan of this culture but it is what it is and if you don't fit in you are unfortunately viewed as being a little pretentious.

I'd say don't change a thing (you wouldn't be able to anyway) and your new employee will at some stage come to the realisation that you can't change the world but you can change yourself.

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    I may be missing something, but I can't see in the question or the OP's profile that they're in rural Australia. Being Australian and having worked in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra at various times as a developer, I can say with certainty that what might be acceptable in Brisbane may well be frowned upon in Melbourne. A team has its dynamic, but the cultural rules are established within an organisation, not stereotypically that all Aussies swear like troopers. – Jane S Apr 24 '18 at 0:16
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    Industry : IT Cultural context : Rural Australia – solarflare Apr 24 '18 at 0:27
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    The OP edited it out – solarflare Apr 24 '18 at 0:27
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    Nonetheless, it's more about organisational culture than a national stereotype. – Jane S Apr 24 '18 at 0:42
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    @DenizC I didn't edit it out. Someone else did. Someone else then update the tag to Australia which I reckon I should have done in the first place. Cheers. – happybuddha Apr 24 '18 at 11:23
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How can I make this new employee understand that using the F word is ok (in a non-insulting way) ?

If this new worker is uncomfortable with those words you could start by bringing him/her up to date on the work culture of your company. A one-on-one talk should be ideal for this situation, something like:

Hey Joe. I have noticed you sometimes get uncomfortable when people drop the F word during work. I have to tell you that here in the company we are more relaxed and open than other places you may have been, so don't be alarmed with casual use of such words. Now, if you feel someone is stepping off the limits feel free to bring it to his/her attention, as disrespect is something we definitely not tolerate.

Yet another option you got is to try avoid using such words when around that person, as to minimize him/her being uncomfortable. Perhaps with some time being there that person will adapt to such environment (or not).

I know that the company culture won't change for just one person's liking, but perhaps this is a sign that not everyone is ok with the use of these words in a professional environment.


On another note, in any professional environment the use of profanity should ideally not be encouraged or tolerated (specially when involving clients or providers).

I know that in several cultures the light use of such words is quite common, but the professional behavior and language used in a work environment is really different from casual or informal behavior. Part of being a professional worker is to be able to tell apart from these two settings and behave accordingly.

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    If you people wish, we can continue this discussion in the Water Cooler, for the sake of what comments are for. – DarkCygnus Apr 26 '18 at 21:30
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Update the Handbook

If you are going to have a permissive environment (and imho, goodonya for that approach) in this day and age that should probably be documented. Let new hires know that if they hear 'crikey, that task took f*^@ing ages' there's no intent to cause offence by the profanity.

Culturally, Australians are traditionally happier in a reduced-formality environment. Australia also prides itself on being a multicultural country. This can mean that people from a formal culture may need assistance in navigating the mores of an irreverent workplace. Having a formal direction of informality - à la the updated handbook reference - would both assuage those from a formal environment, and also provide an argument to counter Mr/s Politeness' "no profanity in the workplace" comments if as you say they are made in an attempt to 'get attention'.

Additionally, you may want to pull Mr/s Politeness aside and suggest that instead of constantly repeating 'no profanity in the workplace' (s)he simply says 'flaming' when (s)he hears the 'F-bomb' dropped. This will get the point across from a less confrontational standpoint and is also a cultural (memeish?) Aussie reference as a well-known character often uses it in a soap-opera TV show pretty much everyone in the country is aware of.

Edit: Some possible language that may suit the handbook.

XYZ organisation enjoys an informal working environment. Staff are encouraged to maintain a respectful, yet relaxed atmosphere in their language and dealings with colleagues. Disrespectful conduct will not be permitted, however the use of colloquial language will not be penalised.

This, and/or the suggested text supplied by @mbrig should be fine.

While the OP may not be allowed to directly edit the handbook, one would hope that a suggested edit to HR or management would be looked upon favourably, especially if it aligns with the philosophy of the organisation.

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    I'm curious to learn how you think that would be phrased in a handbook. "Casual profanity is not only allowed but actively encouraged. Failure to comply may result in ostracism or contract termination." – Michael Apr 25 '18 at 9:15
  • I don't disagree with this, but OP is not a manager and, therefore, presumably not in a position to change the handbook. – reirab Apr 25 '18 at 10:29
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    @michael You could probably get away with something like "use of any language (offensive or not) to degrade/threaten/discriminate against others is unacceptable, but otherwise we encourage a casual and unrestricted environment" – mbrig Apr 25 '18 at 15:14
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First of all, I'm on your side, but I still disagree with:

It is almost impossible for the management to get developers to stop using F for qualifying their emotions.

If upper management wills it, it's definitely possible.

A swear jar may have to be implemented, one or two employees may have to be let go to be made examples of, and the moral of the rest of the employees may go down as a result for a period of time before it gets any better, but it's definitely possible.

Now, is it worth upsetting the apple cart? That's another question entirely.

My feeling is he does it to get attention.

You may, in fact, be correct, but for all you know, this guy may have just been raised in an environment and a family that penalized swear words.

In any case, be careful what you say to yourself about his underlying purpose, I'm not saying not to do it, but attributing a purpose is a very tricky thing and it may make you dislike him even way more than you do already.

We now have a new employee who while being local (aware of the loose usage of the F word) keeps saying "no profanity at the work place" at developer meetings.

However, I do think you should mentor the guy. If he wants his proposals to be taken semi-seriously, he needs to bring them up in private first.

In other words, when I am a new employee somewhere, even for far less controversial proposals, I find it a lot easier to convince multiple people when I discuss the idea with them one-on-one first instead of as a group. So then, by the time, I bring up my proposal in a meeting, I already know everybody (or most) will agree to it because the entire group (or the majority of the group) has already discussed and agreed to it privately.

Also, another technique is to try to convince the individuals that are the easiest to convince first. Not only those individuals may be the easiest to convince, but even if your proposal is a really bad idea, those are the most likely help you refine the idea or convince you diplomatically not to introduce the idea at all.

However, if the new member of your team brings up the idea repeatedly in meetings no matter how many times the idea has been shot down already, then it's possible that he enjoys starting arguments (which is something that you already alluded to earlier with him wanting attention).

In which case, this could be a bad habit of his, and hopefully, you can help him become self-aware of that habit and help him become aware of how destructive that habit could be to his long-term career.

Furthermore, privately you need to take him aside and tell him that even if a swearing employee doesn't care too much about the issue, that if he confronts such an employee either directly in front of others (or indirectly in front of others in a business meeting), that he's unconsciously trying to assert his authority over that person and trying to make him lose face in front of his peers. And as a new employee and a non-manager, he can't be doing that type of stuff. As this will only cause more swearing to happen overall and this will only cause other employees to ostracize the new employee in retaliation.

How can I make this new employee understand that using the F word is ok (in a non-insulting way)?

I am not familiar with Australian laws, but assuming this is ok with your Australian legal counsel (which I have no idea if it is, or not).

You could just make the troublemaker understand that if you had to choose between one employee worth x amount of Australian dollars to the company and multiple employees worth y amount of Australian dollars to the company, whoever has the biggest worth would probably win out in the end, and the person(s) with the lowest economic impact would most likely be let go because of their lack of cultural fit.

And finally, to drive the point to him. You could ask him how likely some other employer is to hire him as an engineer if he wasn't able to stay at his last company more than a couple of months (but again, only say something like this if it's legal and if your company legal counsel signs off on it, and if management backs up the underlying threat of him potentially losing his job over this issue).

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    I'm glad you addressed the "impossible" bit. Management should be honest - they either want to permit swearing or not. Passing the buck by claiming an inability to do anything about it is inappropriate. It's not like we'd accept "we'd love to stop the developers from groping people, but it's just so hard..." as an excuse. – ceejayoz Apr 24 '18 at 19:47
  • This answer doesn't seem relevant to the situation here, as OP is a peer of the new hire, not his boss. Therefore, OP is presumably not in a position to choose between one employee or another or to terminate any employee. – reirab Apr 25 '18 at 10:32
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    As to the impossible thing, every workplace full of engineers I have ever worked at does not allow swearing. It is far from impossible, it is professional behavior. – HLGEM Apr 25 '18 at 14:18
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    @JohnK It's entirely possible for management to stop developers from swearing. It's just a question of how many firings it'd take before folks get the message. If management cared enough, they could put a stop to it. – ceejayoz Apr 25 '18 at 20:17
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    @ceejayoz or before management realizes the company won't survive without engineers. – Erik Apr 26 '18 at 5:12
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Have you considered that the new employee may be right, and you may be wrong?

Are you sure all of the other employees are using these cuss words, or just a noisy few?

I am sure there are other people in your workplace who are also uncomfortable with with the language, but don't feel comfortable to say anything about it. I think it's great that a new employee is confident enough to call out bad office behaviour.

One-on-one casual chats are one thing. If you know the other person well, and you know they are ok with it, but in a team meeting, you should be mindful that there are likely people in the room from different backgrounds, with different beliefs, and different tolerance levels for profanity.

It wasn't so long ago when it was fairly normal for IT guys to have centrefolds up on their cubicle walls.

That kind of thing fortunately has mostly vanished. Foul language in the workplace is going the same way.

  • The difference here is that sexist/crude language and centerfolds on cubes were never appropriate, even if they were often tolerated until the groups they are offensive to had a bigger presence. Certainly, language offensive or degrading to specific groups has no place at work, but casual f-bombs and such are not the same thing. – Christopher Hunter May 1 '18 at 17:26
  • @ChristopherHunter - That distinction is with out merit. There was a time that such things were not just tolerated they were expected. Whether it should have been or not you would get bullied if you didnt tow the line. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 2 '18 at 20:22
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(edit to be more neutral)

Company culture is not defined by those who came first, but by all who are in the company. When a new person joins a company, the culture invariably changes to include the personality of the new person. It is on all of you to find a culture that is acceptable to everyone.

The question should not be: "How can we stop this person from trying to change our culture?" but: "Is this a positive or a negative change for our culture?"

Maybe you find that it is a negative change. Then by all means bring that up, and explain to the new employee how this would negatively impact your culture.

Either way i would go and ask this person why they consider this an issue. Find out how strong they feel about it and why, and try to find a way that everyone can live with.

If the complaints disrupt meetings, then address that issue separately. Find a different form for this person to address their concerns or discomfort.

As long as you don't expect that the new employee simply accepts your culture, i am sure they won't expect you to change your behavior over night either.

Talk and work it out.

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    What makes you say you can't ask anyone to tolerate swear words? I'm pretty sure you can ask them that very easily, and they can leave if they don't like it. "Delicate ears" does not have a protected status in most of the world. – Erik Apr 25 '18 at 9:52
  • @Erik I'm not sure about Australian law but this can get you into legal trouble under certain circumstances in the U.S. Especially with things of a sexual or religious nature. – reirab Apr 25 '18 at 11:00
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    Your "talk and work it out" boils down to "give the employee what he wants because it is what I would want". Would you give the same answer if the question was in the form "We do not generally tolerate profanity at this workplace, but the new employee curses a lot. There's nothing in the handbook, btw"? – DonFusili Apr 25 '18 at 13:38
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    @Erik The new employee could go to management to complain about all the sexual language in their work-environment. And if you try to say that there's nothing sexual about "F**ing", you need an etymology lesson... Most companies require "professional behaviour" from their employees, and there's nothing professional about constant swearing, even if not explicity mentioned in the handbook. – Chronocidal Apr 25 '18 at 15:52
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    I think the important part of this answer is the part about how cultures should be questioned. Everybody has things they do unconsciously because it is culturally accepted. However, when confronted about such things, they should not use said culture as the authority to do such things. Instead, think critically about if those things are positive or negative (both internally and externally) and be willing to change based on your answer. – Bryansix Apr 27 '18 at 16:32
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It just doesn't seem like you've gotten to know this new employee very well. He could be just trying to get attention, but I wouldn't assume he's really trying to change the culture. If he was really offended, he'd probably say a lot more about it.

Do you really need to take this person that seriously on this matter at this point? I've heard people make these kind of statements, but they really say it "tongue and cheek" more as a joke because they swear as much as anyone.

Find out if profanity really bothers this person. Reinforce the idea that this is a very ingrained habit with no intention of offending him. Then again, would you speak this way at your grandma's house?

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    Not sure what grandma's house has to do with anything. – jcm Apr 25 '18 at 4:24
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    "I wouldn't assume he's really trying to change the culture" - he consistently asks his colleagues not to do something which is established as culturally acceptable in their workplace... – James Monger Apr 25 '18 at 9:21
  • @jcm - That's an example of places younger adults tend to modify the amount of profanity they use in many cultures. It could be a church, funeral, job interview, or being a talk-show host guest. – user8365 Apr 25 '18 at 19:36
  • @JamesMonger The OP considers it acceptable in his workplace. Has he conducted a survey to determine the level of acceptance, or consulted the HR manager? I very much doubt it. I suspect he's just embarrassed because he's been called out for his own bad bahaviour. – user1751825 May 3 '18 at 0:56
  • @user1751825 The question indicates that he's not the only one in the workplace who does it. It's not a case of "his own bad behaviour" (which is subjective). Adults can swear if they want! – James Monger May 3 '18 at 8:26
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You can walk up to the new employee, and say something like "Hi Joe, I understand that you don't like swearing in the workplace, but that's what we are doing here, and you are not going to change it. It would be the best for you to get used to it, and personally I find "no swearing in the workplace" is more impolite than saying "f***", and you're not going to make friends that way".

The new employee can either listen to you or not listen to you, and try to complain to someone or not. But either way it is better if everything is out in the open than having simmering hostility.

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