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I find some of the things my boss and coworkers say slightly offensive. For example my boss was talking about facebook apps asking for permission and he said "they ask 'do you want us to take your testicles or intestines?'" or "the department pooped when they came out with this product". My boss is usually very serious and never jokes so it's surprising when he uses theses words. Another coworker sort of tries to be vulgar as away of talking. Can I ask them not to use the language and how and when should I do this? For example if there's other people in the room should I wait for a chance to be alone with them and say "I don't like the words x and y"?

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    Just keep in mind that this might be in their character so your boss and your colleague may see this as an attack on them personally not just a professional issue. – Michael Grubey Aug 2 '13 at 10:31
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    Since your boss never really used cuss words, I don't see how this qualifies as profanity. – happybuddha Aug 2 '13 at 16:23
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    Are you perhaps paraphrasing? The words you quoted are pretty mild. – ThatOneGuy Aug 3 '13 at 14:41
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Let me tell you a story about the bad old days of the 1980s when sexual harrassment was common in the workplace. At the time I worked for the military as a civil service worker, but the command I worked for had very many more men than women and they tended to use profanity extensively. I didn't particularly care and said nothing. Another woman complained loudly to the boss including a list of what words were said and how many times they were said (and by who) over a period of time. A third woman, who was very conservative and religious and actaully much more offended than the other woman, talked to the offenders privately and asked then not to use the language in front of her.

These were the same guys working on the same team. With the woman who complained directly to the boss with the numeric counts, they made sure to find a way to improve their score (by making it go up!) for the next complaint. They also did some very nasty things to the woman. But for the woman who directly and politely asked them to refrain in front of her, they tried to be aware of what they were saying and be mindful of how much it bothered her.

The point is that most people don't want to be offensive to you and will try to not be offensive if you simply tell them that the behavior bothers you. They will however up the ante if you make them mad in how you go about complaining. So the first rule is never go above someone's head on an issue until you have calmly tried to work it out with them.

If you make them aware there is a problem and they continue, then you have to decide if it offends you enough to constitute a problem and then either go to HR and discuss the issue or look for a different team to work on or find a new job. If they escalate the behavior, then you probably do want to definitely go to HR or change jobs because life is too short to spend it working with jerks.

It is a bit more delicate because the person who is being offensive is your boss. but honestly if he doesn't care about offending you and gets mad if you say something, do you really want to work for him? You really need to weigh the level of offense against your desire to keep this job against the difficulty of finding a new one in your field (most people will allow more offensive behavior when it is hard to find another job because we like to keep a roof over our heads.)

Depending on the person's personality, a joke might work but that is too subtle for many people and may be seen by them as encouraging the behavior. It worked for me once when someone crossed the line, but it was someone I knew pretty well and I knew he would both get my point and not get upset that I pushed back publicly with a joke that embarrassed him as much as he had embarrassed me with what he said. But I wouldn't try it unless I knew the person well enough to predict the reaction and only if I was pretty confident in my personal ability to read people. Since you are asking this question, I would suspect this might not be the technique for you.

  • "They will however up the ante if you make them mad in how you go about complaining". In the 80's maybe, not now. It is the company that gets sued in harassment cases, not the person doing the harassment. So the manager/HR should intervene pretty quickly if asking them to stop didn't work. – Simon O'Doherty Aug 2 '13 at 14:25
  • @SimonO'Doherty - it depends on where you work even now. I know of companies that routinely harrass still (usually small privately oewned companies with no HR), plus the people upping the ante are betting you will feel intimidated and not go to HR and much of the time that works (one reason why these people are always so surprised when someone does call them on it). ANd just becasue teh company won't tolerate it if it comes to their attention doesn't mean people at a lower level won't try. I would agree things are better than teh 80's but they are not perfect by any means. – HLGEM Aug 2 '13 at 15:12
  • Further there are ways of upping the ante that are difficult to complain about (because they are hard to prove) such as being less cooperative with you, excluding you from conversations, being slower to respond to your valid work related questions etc. – HLGEM Aug 2 '13 at 15:14
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    And while it may not be fair, HR is likely to treat a guy complaining about another guy about mildly offensive words less seriously than a woman complaining about a man in the same circumstances. – HLGEM Aug 2 '13 at 15:16
  • This worked. I sent them an e-mail telling them what they were saying offends me and asked them if they are going to be speaking of such things to do it where I'm not. – Jslam Aug 27 '13 at 16:55
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I don't really see the words you mentioned as profane. Strong words, yes they express strong emotion but they are not actually a direct insult to anyone; unprofessional, maybe, if you're in front of a client or someone from a different department, but not necessarily when inside your own turf. If this is the extent to what your boss says, I'd say you probably should just ignore it. In a free country, you do NOT have a right to not be offended, sometimes you just had to take things in stride.

With that said, the best way to go with this, IMO, is to talk with the people directly in private. Make it clear to them that you felt uncomfortable with such languages, that you are not used to vulgar languages, and you want them to avoid using them when in your presence; make it clear that the problem is not them but on you. Most reasonable people should understand.

If this is also how your boss presents himself professionally with clients or to another department, then things might be different. This kind of behavior may affect the relationships with your clients or the other departments, so if this is the case, then you do have an objective ground to complain. Alternatively, if your company has a policy prohibiting the use of vulgar languages in the office, then you would also have an objective ground to object. Still, it is better to achieve mutually agreed consensus instead of forced compliance, so try to avoid escalating the situation more than is necessary.

  • +1 for "you do not have a right not to be offended" - the number of people of don't realise this staggers me sometimes... – Matt Sep 27 '13 at 14:51
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How about:

"Hey < insert name here > can you not talk like that? I find it kind of offensive."

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    I think asking you boss to not say pooped would not go over very well. – jmorc Aug 1 '13 at 23:58
  • If asking my boss not to be a jackass wouldn't go over well, I wouldn't work there. – aclear16 Aug 27 '13 at 22:00
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I think the best approach would be to do a sort of "cringe" look when they speak in this manner. You don't have to say anything, just "look" offended. Of course, most importantly is that you never speak the same way. Eventually they will get it...

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