coworker constantly swears and uses angry language

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A reader writes:

My coworker is constantly swearing. It’s really foul and demeaning language (such as “f***ing b**ch” or “thanks for nothing, you idiot”). Sometimes it’s low volume but at other times close to screaming or almost like a mantra, especially in the evening when many people have gone home. These outbursts are apparently not directed at anyone sitting around, seem to be directed at the people who send the e-mails, the computer itself, or some imaginary person. Still, this is extremely disturbing and startles me several times a day. Using headphones or earplugs is difficult as I need to communicate with my colleagues.

I have heard people complain and comment on this but no one does anything. I haven’t addressed this either. I’m not sure if this may be some kind of an illness and I don’t want to embarrass the person. But I’m really desperate as this is making it impossible to concentrate and get my work done.

I’ve written before about my love of profanity, but exercising it depends on being in an environment where it’s not going to make anyone uncomfortable. That’s not the case here.  And what’s more, it sounds like the hostility behind the language is at least as troubling — if not more so — than the language itself.

So speak up!  It’s completely reasonable for you to ask this guy to tone it down. This isn’t like asking someone not to cough; this is behavior that’s both within his control and generally acknowledged to be something that makes plenty of people uncomfortable.

The next time it happens, say something like this:  “Joe, could you tone the language down? Thank you.”

If he glares at you or something, ignore him. Smile pleasantly and move on. If he argues with you, though, just say something like, “I know different people have different comfort levels with language, but it’s hard on my ears, so I appreciate you making the effort. Thank you.”

And really, if it continues after a couple of reminders, talk to your boss. There’s something legitimately unsettling about the behavior you’ve described (“screaming or almost like a mantra”).

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Malissa

    I’m sorry, you seem to be working with my predecessor. I trained with her for 30 days, I asked the boss to find her something else to do after 15 days as my ears couldn’t take it anymore.

    But really, I’d just use one of two phrases when I heard offending language like that. they are either, “Wow” or “Excuse me?” Then the offender has a chance to apologize and not look like a total fool. But really, where is the boss while this is going on?

  2. Aniau

    Foul language directed AT someone in unacceptable. Let alone that your co-worker seems to throw it around like that in public. Maybe you should put a dictionary on their desk and encourage them to expand their vernacular capabilities…

    1. Kim Stiens

      I agree that this is an important distinction. Swearing, in general, shouldn’t be a big deal… it’s words that humans invented and humans use. There’s nothing magical about them. They’re offensive because of their context, not the words themselves. Now, in this case, I have to admit some skepticism, since the OP did note specifically that these outbursts aren’t directed at anyone in the room, or even anyone in particular. If the co-worker is being loud and disruptive, that’s a legitimate complaint, especially if it impacts your work. But the problem then isn’t the language or who they’re directing it at… it’s that they’re being loud, and that’s not necessarily workplace appropriate.

      1. Anon y. mouse

        Yes, but…

        I don’t want to work with someone who is constantly angry and ranting. I don’t care if my coworker is keeping it fairly quiet, if I can hear them ripping the person on the other end of their computer screen a new one for a large portion of the day, that’s really worrying. It sets me on edge and distracts me from my work, as well as making me really reluctant to ask that person any business related questions. Sustained anger isn’t appropriate for the workplace, no matter where it’s being directed.

  3. Eric Woodard

    I love profanity too, because it’s some of the most genuine language we have.

    But there is a big difference between using profanity and being disrespectful to a co-worker. Sounds like your co-worker is doing the later.

    If your co-worker makes it sound like you are being a goody two shoes, tell them that you don’t mind their cursing, but they just need to stop being a bully or the UN is going to need to pass a binding resolution to keep you from conducting a policy of scorched Earth upon them. See Less Grossman (warning, contains strong language):
    http://tinyurl.com/6nmo9ln

  4. Rose

    I think you and some coworkers should take it to the next level and incorporate loud swearing in your daily activities. “I’m going out, anyone want some motherf****** coffee?”, etc.

    1. Kelly O

      Best. Comment. EVER.

      Anyone else in this motherf*** office want any motherf**** coffee?

      You could go the full Sam Jackson… oh what fun that would be.

      Signed,
      I’d rather work with people who curse than people who complain.

  5. Harry

    I don’t accept profanity in my office or team. Imagine if a client or potential client walks by and an employee yells out, “any b!tches wanna go grab lunch?”

    Yeah. its a “wanna get a way?” moment…

    1. MJIyer

      Very true, it is so unprofessional and so gross and NOT cool at all. I have a boss and a couple of coworkers that everyone avoids because they tend to be profane and condescending, particularly towards women. i sometimes think they never had a good upbringing. What person who has self respect will like someone addressing them or others with foul words, talking profanity and laughing loudly?

      1. Pont Euxin

        I work with a woman that constant swears about evrything: from our boss to our customers. But she always does it only when I am around and she makes sure there is no one else around her to hear it. I feel toatlly disrespected by this woman. I had another incident with another coworker that I could not take his bad language anymore and I reported him to HR and my manager. Of course he lied and denied evrything using this other woman to back up his lies. After all, I ended up in trouble and they said that I am a bully: all because I tried to stop them from using a bad language. I guess when the boss and the HR tolerates bad language in the work place is best to just let them look bad to others until the whole world sees it. My advice: If the company does not follow its own policies is useless to even bother making any complaints and try to change your job.

  6. Dawn

    I agree with the advice to talk to the guy and it that doesn’t work, go to the boss. I also like confused exclamations such as “wow” or “excuse me?”. However, I’d like to add in defense of the OP that when someone behaves like this, meaning there’s anger and hostility behind the profanity, it doesn’t exactly make that person seem approachable. It makes many employees afraid to speak up so the problem goes on and everyone is on eggshells.

  7. Anony Mouse

    We have a guy like that in our office. The problem is that the boss turned a blind eye to it for so long that the guy interpreted it as acceptable behavior and it has escalated. First it was some swearing, then it went to loud angry swearing, then it went to verbal attacks against one female co-worker he targeted, then it went to hitting the office equipment and literally punching a hole in the office wall. I finally told our boss that the next time he started swearing I would call the cops and have him removed. When someone is that angry its way too easy for the violence to go from verbal to physical. Our guy had gone from angry verbal to physical against inanimate objects. Its a very small step from that to hurting someone. Its hard for the person to control themselves because the anger literally builds on itself.

    1. Nichole

      Excellent point. Swearing isn’t appropriate for the workplace in general, and it’s clear from the letter that this isn’t one of those situations where the occasional swear word is dropped and it’s not a big deal. By allowing it to continue, the boss allows that boundary to be broken-it’s ok for this person to make others uncomfortable now. Silence implies consent, someone needs to say something now. This person probably thinks it’s not a big deal, and the response when told that other people are bothered by it will be telling.

    2. Heather

      @Antony Mouse, I am the person that sent the question. This is exactly the same case here, the managers turn a blind eye, at least it seems like that to me. These outbursts simply cannot be overheard. My coworker’s boss is located in a different country, so that makes it even more difficult. I can only imagine that this is tolerated because he has very special knowledge and could be defined as an irreplacable person – they are scared of intimidating him and causing him to leave. Or they all know something that I don’t, for example that the real cause for this is an illness.
      The problem is that this has been going on for so long now (I have been sitting near this person for several months now), I should have said something much earlier. I guess I was hoping that this was a phase, maybe because of the person suffering from a lot of stress or something.

  8. curious

    Hello Ms Green, the problem is written in a gender neutral fashion but you have used ‘he’ in your answer, where you usually use ‘she’. Did the original question give the gender of the co-worker? Just interested.

      1. Heather

        Hello, I am the person that placed the question. It is in fact a male coworker that is behaving this way.

  9. curious

    And I agree – a constantly miserable co-worker, even if they just complain and curse to themselves also sets me on edge. I am less willing to interact with such people so yes OP, tell them. They may have no idea of the effect they are having.

    1. Catherine

      I agree that it sounds like this person may have Tourette’s or something like it. As a long-time public-transportation rider, I encounter people with verbal tics–often profanity–rather frequently, and I find it’s actually much *less* unsettling to realize that the person simply has a tic. The repetitive, mantra-like nature of the outbursts often clues me in. It might be worse in the evening because the person has a harder time controlling it when he’s tired or simply relaxes on the amount of energy devoted to controlling it when he thinks fewer people are around.

      But I agree with the advice to talk to your coworker about it if it’s disturbing your work. If it’s not a tic, the person should be more considerate. If it is a tic, maybe there’s a way that you can minimize your own disturbance (or just relax, knowing that it’s something the person is doing involuntarily).

    2. ImpassionedPlatypi

      If no one else had brought this up as a possibility, I was going to. I’m honestly surprised that Alison didn’t at least mention the possibility of Tourette’s being involved.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      I can see how the later-evening stuff (screaming it and repeating it like a mantra) could sound like Tourette’s, but the other stuff didn’t to me — the language used to described someone else in a hostile way, for instance.

      1. fposte

        Yes, this sounds like continued anger, not an irresistible compulsion that isn’t reflective of a personality, especially since the person is cursing *at* stuff, not just exclaiming. Plus the cursing Tourette’s is apparently a pretty uncommon thing.

        1. jmkenrick

          I agree. My understanding is that Tourette’s (esp w/ swearing tics) is quite unusual. I think if the coworker had Tourette’s the OP would have also described things such as random hand/facial movements, or erratic outbursts.

      2. Catherine

        “the language used to described someone else in a hostile way”–AAM

        I guess from how I read the post, I could not tell that any specific person was being referred to, especially because the OP seemed to think that in at least some cases the person in question was definitely not talking *to* anyone or *about* any particular situation, as far as could be determined.

        1. Catherine

          Oh, and I forgot the main thing I wanted to say! My friend used to have a job as a kind of employment social worker, helping people with mental problems get jobs. I once asked her what type of problem, among the ones challenging her clients, made them most difficult to place. She said that it was the schizophrenics, because it was so hard to get a workplace to accept people who might have to talk to themselves while they worked.

          1. Catherine

            That’s the phrases I thought you meant, but when I reread, I still couldn’t tell if, in this context, these were phrases with an actual referent or just sort of stock phrases that the person was repeating. (“Thanks for nothing, you idiot,” sounds exactly like the kind of thing that a person in my town repeats to himself for most of a bus ride.) Not that I’m saying the OP wants to hear them either way. But, to give a more usual example, I would feel differently about a coworker who dropped something and exclaimed, “Son of a b****!” than I would about one who hung up the phone and said, “What a son-of-a-b****!” I don’t know what the situation is here–of course–and it sounds like the OP isn’t sure yet, either.

  10. Jamie

    The vast majority of people with Tourette’s have tics that don’t involve socially inappropriate language. And those that do tend to have that in combination with other tics (facial, vocal, etc.) so it might be pretty evident to the OP if that were the case.

    http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/tc/tourettes-disorder-topic-overview

    I’m not saying it’s impossible – but it’s far more probable that the swearer just doesn’t have a filter (or isn’t using it.)

    I have no problem with profanity – but I do have a problem with raw hostility. Swear at the copier all you like, I couldn’t care less. Swear at or in reference to another person in a degrading manner and I think that’s completely out of bounds.

    In the OP’s situation it’s the context that is a huge cause for concern.

    1. fposte

      As discussed upthread, I don’t think it’s the profanity per se but the seemingly seething rage and uncontrolled outbursts that’s disconcerting here. I don’t think I’d be more soothed if the person was muttering away and started shouting about the gosh darn computer.

  11. JT

    @Anony Mouse
    “next time he started swearing I would call the cops and have him removed. ”

    Is it illegal to curse and be angry? Threatening someone is one thing – but calling the police? Really?

    @Harry
    Cursing other people, or doing it so much it interferes with business is bad. Cursing in front of (most clients) is really bad. But there are many things we might say in front of clients that would hurt business. Do you ban them all?

    The OP’s problem is real – it’s over the top use of profanity, which is destructive. But I really appreciate what Eric Woodward said. Profanity has a place. When things go very wrong, it can be useful way to indicating annoyance or releasing tension, for example. It can be very honest, which is a good thing. Depending on the workplace, it might be used a lot or a rarely. It’s generally more appropriate in a small group that is very familiar with each other. It shouldn’t be overused.

    But to suggest it’s always inappropriate is f&cked up.

      1. Jamie

        I don’t think you’re wrong. Unless one is feeling physically threatened, it’s a waste of police resources.

        When they promise to protect and serve I don’t think they mean protect someone from impolite behavior.

        1. Nichole

          In general I’d agree, but I got the impression that this has escalated to the point that Anony Mouse and others in the office feel physically threatened, and that’s when it becomes a police matter. I don’t think anyone should be expected to wait for someone to get hurt before management handles the situation, and telling them that you’re willing to call the police imparts the seriousness of what’s happening while preparing the management to deal with the fallout if it comes to that.

    1. Harry

      The issue here is swearing, not talking behind client’s back. My point is that profanity in a work place may impact customer’s image of your company negatively. It’s a no brainer to be careful of what you say when clients are around. Profanity can case a hostile / uncomfortable environment in a work place. I once hired a group of people. Someone brought to my attention that during training, a large of them were swearing left and right and others were very uncomfortable.

  12. Anony Mouse

    In the case of the guy in our office, he just plainly scars me and some of the other women I work with. His cursing is loud, angry and vulgar, and is accompanied with physical violaence against objects in the office.
    In domestic violence prevention one of the things you are warned to do is to get away from someone who has croosed the line from angry verbal to angry physical against an object, because its such a small step to go from there to angry physical against another person – you! If the behavior of any person – coworker or other – places you in legitimiate fear of imminent physical harm against yourself or others, you have the right to call law enforcement. The circumstances have to be such that any “reasonable person” would be justified to feel fear for their safety or the safety of others.
    In our case the guy does it when the boss is away from the office for a day or more, and he does it to intimidate the female staff. I don’t want to get him fired, but the next time he does it I’m calling the cops.

    1. Jamie

      I didn’t read all the posts as carefully as should have.

      This clearly falls into the category where a reasonable person could feel threatened. Calling the police if you feel a situation could escalate and become dangerous is never silly…it’s prudent.

      Calling the police because you walk past my office and hear me mutter the f word to some code which keeps throwing exceptions would be ridiculous. Calling the police because I’m shouting obscenities and behaving in an aggressive/violent matter would be expected.

    2. fposte

      Agreed. There’s a difference between telling the cops “There’s a guy swearing at his computer” and “There’s a guy screaming obscenities at us who’s just smashed his coffee cup against the wall.”

      Has the boss been informed how bad it is when s/he’s not there?

  13. Anony Mouse

    The boss has been informed repeatedly, but he does nothing. That is why I told him the next time our colleague loses it, I’m calling the cops. If I actually have to do that, my next call with be to HR followed by a call to my boss’ boss, who supposedly already knows about the behavior. Under the Violence in the Work Place Protection Act this guy should have been fired a long time ago. I think he’s a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode. What is particularly concenring is that we are quickly entering what is traditionally the most stressful time of year for families and singles, and or course our boss is going to be gone on vacation for most of it.

    1. Anonymous

      Wait, why would you call the police before HR? Next time he throws a tantrum record it on your phone and show it to HR. If he is actually damaging property and you have proof it should be a simple matter.

      1. Anon y. mouse

        If Anony Mouse hasn’t previously spoken to HR about this guy, you’re right, now is the time to do so. They need to be aware that this is seriously out of control. Also, if she’s in a dual consent state where making a hidden recording would otherwise be illegal, HR (speaking for the business) can give her permission to record his next outburst. (IANA lawyer, but if your employer can set up security cameras and dig through personal files on your work issued laptop, I can’t see how they’d be forbidden from filming someone’s behavior. You have no expectation of privacy at work.)

        In the middle of a dangerous situation it obviously makes sense to call the police first. There’s no need to wait until then to inform HR of what’s going on, though.

        (Sorry about the very similar user name, Anony. I didn’t realize you were here when I started using this name, I’ll switch to something else.)

  14. Interviewer

    I used to work at a company where I sat next to the benefits person. Almost hourly she got phone calls from employees with questions. Admittedly some of them were really dumb questions – all of which she would answer them politely and patiently. However, once she hung up, she would loudly say, “Idiot! Stupid! What a jerk! Oh my god! ARGH” etc., where I could hear it and sometimes others nearby. She had similar reactions to emailed questions as well. I used to tease her about how I loved to sit next to her so I could hear all the bitching, which was to make her realize that I could clearly hear her and consider that maybe she needed to stop it, but she didn’t get the message.

    If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn’t have teased her about it, because she took pride in being this martyr who had to deal with idiots and that quick, loud “IDIOT!” was how she let off the steam. And god forbid one of them would be waiting nearby and hear her do that before she noticed them standing there. That was my fear, really. So I should have been straight with her. Finally I brought it to our boss’s attention, and the comments magically tapered off.

    OP, I would just approach him with a very simple, “Hey, I probably should have spoken up much sooner, but I really don’t like swearing. Could you please keep those kind of comments to yourself?” Good luck.

    1. JessB

      Oooh, I love this suggestion! Alison is totally right and the OP has to say something, but acknowledging that you should have spoken up earlier is a great way to defuse that issue, and make the problem the main point.

      I’m really surprised by how many people have to deal with this issue. I had a co-worker like this at one job, and was able to speak to my boss about how much it bothered me. It was a similar situation to other people, not so much the language that bothered me, but the increasing anger behind it. My boss told me that the guy was having problems in his marriage, and was very stressed out. Of course I sympathised, but that didn’t mean he could stress out me and other co-workers.

      It should be such a simple situation – behave reasonably in the workplace (and everywhere, really), but for some people it’s not. Good luck to everyone dealing with this issue.

  15. Anonymous

    “Why would you call the police before HR? ”

    1. Because HR already knows about it and has done nothing.
    2. When an individual is acting out to the extent of physical violence, the danger of injury to other staff and the need for intervention is IMMEDIATE, not two or three weeks later, whever HR gets around to it.

    1. Anonymous

      Here’s the problem with that. You call the police and say that “Bob is screaming obscenities and throwing things” Police show up and won’t be able to do anything because:
      A) They never saw him doing any of this
      B) His obscenities and violence was not directed at you or any other person present
      C) Even if he was throwing a coffee cup at you directly, as the police did not witness it and hit did not hit you with it they cannot legally do anything.

      Your best bet is to continue recording this as evidence and to notify HR. I imagine that they would take 3 weeks to respond of you tell them your coworker is making you uncomfortable with his swearing. But, if you have proof of him screaming and damaging company property and send it to him they will take immediate action. Why? Because if he ever hits anyone you will have documented proof that the company knew and did nothing which would result in a costly settlement.

      1. fposte

        Recording is quite possibly illegal and even if legal, possibly inadmissible. I agree that there’s nothing to keep the OP from going to HR right this very moment, but you don’t avoid calling the police just because you’re not sure if the problem will exist by the time they get there. If you think you’re in danger, call them.

        It might also be worth talking to the cops via the non-emergency number before the next blowup, explaining the situation and your concern, and seeing if they have any suggestions aside from just calling them when things get bad. Around here they’re actually pretty good about that kind of thing.

        1. Dan

          Yes. This is what I was thinking. Call the non-emergency number and get their advice.

          For everyone’s sake, I hope this gets resolved soon.

          Dan

  16. JT

    “Even if he was throwing a coffee cup at you directly, as the police did not witness it and hit did not hit you with it they cannot legally do anything.”

    Really? The police legally cannot do anything if the person was not hit and they did not see it themselves. I did not know that. That’s remarkable.

  17. FrauTech

    On the one hand, I’ve had a lot of coworkers who act like this. So I’m trusting the OP’s instinct that this has indeed crossed the line. Sometimes a coworker is angrily cursing at a computer program issue and I can tell they are genuinely angry and it’s best to just stay quiet. Other times the guy will get off the phone and say something like, “can you f-ing believe that guy? he wanted me to…what a f-ing idiot, doesn’t he know that’ll cause x types of failure? who the hell does he think he is?” Because it’s someone I genuinely like it was pretty easy for me to get amused by this. His cursing and anger was really on the level of Samuel L Jackson and I’d sometimes yell back “you f-ing tell him!” Sometimes it’s good to have some venting and solidarity.

    But I’m assuming the OP can tell the difference and that this has crossed a line into possible violence. Start keeping logs of what occurs. Start sending reports to your boss and HR every week. (Monday 5:00pm employee started yelling audibly and cursing. Monday 5:15pm employee called someone on the phone a f-ing idiot.) Recognize saying something might not accomplish anything. Maybe talk to your boss about getting moved further away from this employee, or maybe getting this employee moved further away from everyone else. Never work alone with them, etc. Good luck.

    1. Anonymous

      I agree with the detailed, specific documentation. This is also a good reason to call the police; even if they refused to “do” anything, claiming they didn’t witness the violence, there will be a record of the call. Put that on your log for HR: “10 am…..called p0lice second time this week for X’s behavior”. 1) there will be a log of how often and how serious you and your coworkers thought his behavior was getting, and 2) maybe the police will eventually notice. Even if they didnt’ “see” the precise act, it would still be sweet if they contacted a higher-up in the company and said “your employees feel a continuous need to call us because of one of your staff…is there a problem we need to investigate?”

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Hmmm, I’m not sure about this. I think the police are likely to tell you to stop calling for something that isn’t a crime, and your employer is likely to order you to stop calling the police on a coworker who isn’t breaking the law. I do think that if the OP feels unsafe, she needs to report that to the employer; I just don’t think calling the police about non-crimes is the way to go.

  18. Gina D

    I have a swear jar in my office for my staff. Anyone says a naughty word they have to pay a quarter. The money gets donated to charity (last time it was the local children’s hospital). Funny though…..we can get to $100.00 pretty quickly, but it does make people think before they pick something nasty to say. It is hard to control language sometimes, especially working here…(haha) but at least good deeds are coming from it.

  19. mc

    If the outbursts are as wild, bizarre, and repettitve as you suggest, is there a possibility this person has Tourette’s or a similar condition?

  20. Anonymous

    We don’t have one, apparently. My co-worker goes on an HOURS long rant about why she hates her husband, children and clients and our boss acts like she is the greatest employee ever. It’s unreal. REALLY.

  21. Security

    I love mu job…….but a co-worker, male I have to sit next to goes on all day swearing and talking to his computer loud. Calls everyone a moron, swears all day long it is getting to the point I can’t stand it. I work in a all male office and they all tolerate his behavior.. all “military” and say “thats the way it is in the military. Yes, but they have been out of the service for 20 or 30 years. Everyone turns a blind eye and I spend more time in the office with this person than anyone because the others are out in the field and don’t her the majority of this. I talked to one individual and related this and they told me to pray for him…he has had a hard life. Well duh….Think I need another way to make a living. Anyhow I feel better getting this off my chest. Thanks

  22. Anonymous

    My neighbor lives alone and is constantly angry and screaming mean things and profanities. Just a few minutes ago, he ran down to his jeep and angrily ripped the cover off. The only phrase I could make out was “trying to f*ck me over!!” Then he went back to his apartment and slammed the door as hard as he could. This is a daily occurrence. Random angry screaming. He never even drives anywhere so I don’t get why he bothers to take the over off his jeep. I got online to find out if it is some kind of psychological problem. It really doesn’t sound like tourretts but it could be. I just want to know what the hell is wrong with him and if I should be worried about him eventually shooting up the place.

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