the F word at work and other concerns

A reader writes:

I have two questions. I work in a pet hospital as a vet tech. I have been there for a little over 10 years. Recently we have had a lot of staff changes, including office managers. The previous office manager wants to come back to work as a tech; because she had access to employee files, I feel like there is a conflict of interest. Am I wrong? Can she be hired back?

Second question: Recently, I have been written up for unacceptable behavior due to the use of foul language toward our “new” office manager. It was a very heated, emotional and upsetting meeting. The words just slipped out and I did try to apologize after. So long story short, this “new” manager has the mouth of a trucker and has used language like this many times since, but not in the same circumstance. My question is…isn’t the f* word the f* word, no matter how it’s used?

Not really. Saying “F you” to a colleague is very different from saying, “F—!  The copier is broken again.” If what you said was more along the “F you” lines, that’s a pretty big deal. It’s aggressively hostile, insulting, and unprofessional. You really can’t do that under any circumstances, if you expect to still have a job afterwards.

And even if that’s not how you used it, it sounds like you were having a serious, sensitive conversation. Whatever your stance on profanity in other circumstances, you don’t hurl it around in that type of conversation; you keep it professional.

So your office was right to take issue with it. And I say that as someone who loves profanity and believes it is the perfect seasoning for many a sentence.

On your other question, about the former office manager who wants to come back to work as a tech:  I don’t think there’s really a conflict of interest. The real question is whether this person is someone who can be trusted to act with integrity and not use in any way the confidential information that she had access to in her previous role. If she can’t, that should be a deal-breaker; if she can, then it’s a non-issue.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Karen*

    Spot on regarding the F word. In many workplaces, the culture is a bit more casual, and people drop F bombs in frustration toward inanimate objects (F this printer!) or outside entities (like a private office conversation about a nutty outside client). Or, they’ll drop it as a joke.

    Using the word in anger toward a colleague, however, is not cool. Angry conversations are unpleasant enough; both sides need to use appropriate and professional language to not let things get out of hand. Hurling F bombs can escalate a situation unnecessarily.

  2. Joey*

    There is a bit of a double standard on cuss words sometimes. I’ve worked for a few executives than every other word seems to be the F word. And they have no problem personalizing it. On the other hand they’d fire you in a minute if you reciprocated. And while they’re handing you your pink slip you’d get the full barrage of profanity. I think it’s that old school mentality that the rules don’t apply to the boss. The sad thing is it’s frequently overlooked by the CEO or board if they produce results.

  3. Jamie*

    Totally agree that it’s situational. I have no problem with profanity in general or directed and objects or situations…but directed at people takes any issue to a whole level of hostility.

    User: “The f**king network is down again.” Fine.

    User: “The f**king IT better fix the network.” Huge problem.

    I look at swearing like throwing a baseball…totally fine in many contexts – but if you deliberately hurl either at a person someone is getting hurt.

  4. fposte*

    I would say that once you’re in a heated (and, I’m guessing, adversarial) meeting all swearing is effectively at the other person and should be avoided. The other person really isn’t going to hear much a difference between “You’re totally wrong, and you’re a slacker! I can’t effing believe it!” and “You’re totally wrong, and you’re a slacker! Eff you!” and you really don’t want to find yourself in the position of parsing the difference in order to defend yourself.

  5. Lentil*

    I disagree, I think the F word is the F word no matter under what context it’s used.

    When you were a kid and you said “f” after stubbing your toe were you disciplined less than when you said “f you!” to your sibling?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But we’re adults. Are you seriously saying that you think that saying “F you” to a coworker should be treated the same as saying “I hate this F’ing printer”?

      1. Anonymous*

        In my mid-twenties, I still live at home with my parents. My dad still comes down on me if he thinks I use the “S” word too many times, even when it’s not directed at any person. He gives me the “I thought I raised a lady” line.

    2. jmkenrick*

      Actually yes.

      That would have gotten me into MUCH more trouble. You’re not allowed to be mean in our family house.

      1. Jamie*

        Exactly. I don’t like my kids cursing, ever…but letting one loose because you dropped the milk on the sidewalk while bringing in groceries will get a mild rebuke.

        Where as using the same word at a sibling within my earshot will cause the entire world to halt while we have a looooong family meeting about kindness and respect.

        Words are just words – it’s when they are used to hurt other people that I take it seriously.

        For what it’s worth I think name calling is worse than swearing, if we’re ranking things. One of my sons saying the F word to the other in an argument would be awful and definitely not acceptable. However, one calling his brother stupid would break my heart. They don’t do it – at least not in front of me – that’s up there with hitting in the unacceptable under any circumstance category.

  6. Anonymous*

    Totally agree with the situational nature of the usage of curse words.

    As for the old office manager coming back to work as a tech, the only thing she on which she may have the upper hand (and only compared to an outside tech who does not know your company’s salary structure) is with her salary negotiation, since she probably knows what everyone makes. However, your employer should know this and, ultimately, they can hire who they want.

  7. Anonymous*

    The OP said “we have had a lot of staff changes.” I don’t get the concern about hiring someone back that may remember old confidential information about employees who might not even work there anymore. Definitely not a conflict of interest in this case.

      1. fposte*

        But wouldn’t that be just as much of a problem with whoever’s in the office manager position now? Either people keep their mouth shut about personnel information or they don’t.

        I guess this one’s just got me scratching my head a little; maybe it’s more about the person in question than the job.

  8. Christine*

    Personally, I don’t like hearing any cursing in the workplace. An occasional non-aggressive slip is okay, but I’d be very uncomfortable if a coworker or manager is dropping f-bombs on a regular basis regardless of context. (Disclaimer: This is coming from a person who curses quite a bit at home with the hubby. That to me is okay because it’s just the two of us. But we don’t do it in public or in front of family/friends).

  9. Anonymous*

    At my job, one of the higher-ups actually yelled the C word (can’t understand normal thinking, if you really don’t know which word I’m talking about) because he forgot to put a cup under the Keurig one morning… regardless of how offended we all were, there’s no way anyone was going to reprimand him – but at the same time, if one of us had done it, our asses would have been out the door in two seconds flat. There is a bit of a double standard, but I actually think that, in some cases, yelling certain words in an office, no matter how casual, might even be worse than dropping an F bomb AT someone.

  10. arm2008*

    I think profanity in a professional setting or with acquaintances is inappropriate. Unfortunately what I think doesn’t matter in most of these settings. Limited profanity with friends and when you’re alone is fine. Copious amounts of profanity seem suitable only when you’re drunk, having a melt down, or having a spitting mad tantrum.

    I used to swear copiously when I was in high school until one of the teachers I really liked said something to the effect that swearing came from poor communication skills. Good high school teachers know how to effectively use high school crushes ;-)

    1. Under Stand*

      I agree! When I hear someone swearing like a drunken sailor in a professional setting, they come across so far below professional to me. Just reminds me of teenagers who just learned how to cuss and post streams of expletives online! Someone letting a cuss word slip tells me a lot about the person. When you are squeezed, the real you comes out.

      There are plenty of ways to get a point across without using a stream of cuss words.

  11. TT*

    It really has nothing to do with profanity, you just should not make a personal issue in a professional circumstance.

    “I hate this part of my job”

    is very different than “I personally hate my crappy manager”.

  12. NikkiN*

    If the OP has worked the same job for over 10 years and hasn’t figured out when its ok to curse…. she has way bigger issues than one write up. I think there is no cookie cutter answer- experience and common sense should dictate this.

    1. Anon y. mouse*

      The previous manager may have allowed more leeway than the previous one. It’s possible that something like ‘I hate this f’ing assignment’ was okay with the previous manager, even though it’s generally not a smart thing to say, and old habits slipped out.

      But yes, context matters a tremendous amount when it comes to profanity. My husband can say ‘you bitch’ to a video game as much as he likes, but if he uses it to refer to a flesh-and-blood woman it makes my hair stand on end. It’s not just situational context, but also cultural history. It’s complicated, but that’s humanity for you.

  13. Cassie*

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to cuss in the workplace (or at least, an office workplace) at all. If you drop a stapler on your toe or something, fine – let it hurl (as long as you’re not too loud). I mean, everyone in the suite shouldn’t be able to hear you cuss. But I’d prefer it if people kept it professional in the workplace.

    There are a couple of staffers who will cuss from time to time – they are normally loud talkers so their cussing is somewhat loud too (though usually they just throw in a word here or there). The common thing nowadays is for one of them to say “OH MY GOD!!!!” at the top of their lungs, for something completely minor. I’m not religious but their choice of words and the volume at which they shout this out just bugs me.

    1. Natalie*

      The volume would bother me, too. One of my managers has a very difficult time controlling her emotions if she is stressed and she gets really loud. I’d prefer someone curse quietly than shout anything, unless they are warning someone of immediate danger.

  14. Long Time Admin*

    I’m old-fashioned (and old, I readily admit), and I think it’s a shame that your parents never taught you people any better. My folks would have washed your mouths out with soap. Really.

    I know that many workplaces are much more casual than they were in the past, and almost my entire adulthood has been spent working in offices. Swearing or cussing or just plain foul language was never appropriate in the business offices, although “in the shop (factory)” it was quite common.

    I don’t say F*** (although sometimes I do think it, but I know how to control my mouth).

  15. Anonymous*

    I feel like ya”ll need more info. The previous manager had been there for about 2 years and just recently resigned a month ago from manager. She wants to come back as a tech- I feel that it’s really not fair. She knows how much everyone gets paid and I’m sure more info that the bosses have told her things that a “regular” employee would never be told.

  16. Anonymous*

    As far as the f word. This was an employee that got promoted to manager, no it’s not a case of jealousy. We got along very well, she was the type that fun and someone you could just goof around with. She knows how hard I work, I’m the first one there and last to leave. At the “meeting” she attacked my quality of work- so to speak; all because I left a sink dirty….I said “u don’t think I clean! But you let receptionists read mag., color pictures, and paint their nails!!!!! I got up and said “this is f*ing bullshit”.

    1. Anonymous*

      It sounds like this is more than just using the f-word to describe. What really went on? You say she “attacked” your quality of work. How? What did she say? If it was just a passing mention of “you didn’t clean the sink” and you go after her with how the others act and ended it with “this is f*ing bullshit,” then I would see why you’d get written up for it. First of all, as much annoying as other coworkers can be when they slack off (trust me, I know), it’s none of your business how the boss treats them or reprimands them. Just worry about yourself. Second, as I have already mentioned, there has to be more to the story. If anything, you flew off the handle for no reason or for some unknown reason for anger you’ve been storing.

      No, I’m not attacking you, but you’re not painting yourself in a good light here.

      1. Anonymous*

        I was probably angry to begin with, I had brought up concerns I was having a couple weeks earlier – and felt like I was being blown off. I just feel very unappreciated and taken for granted. A lot of the staff is young (19-20). Instead of training them fully, I get the “will you just do it”. I feel like the more I do, the more they expect. My thought is if your going criticize me for something- that’s fine, if it’s something I’m doing wrong.

        1. Anonymous*

          Oof, never a good idea to talk about something you are angry about, but I understand your anger. I know the feeling of “the more I do, the more they expect.” However, things at my work haven’t escalated to that although I expect a train wreck in the near future (long story…). I wish I had advice for you, but if you feel as if you are being walked over, then you do have a right to feel angry. Just try not to take it personally as hard as it might be.

  17. Smithy*

    No-one will think better of you if you do NOT swear – they probably won’t notice. However, they may well think worse of you if you do swear.

    I regard swear words which refer to bodily functions to be coarse – and I would not have much respect for anyone who used the words routinely

    My advice is not to swear in front of people you do not know well. You never know when you may seriously offend someone – a devout Christian, for example, may find someone invoking the deity upsetting.

    Although in my experience, it is possible to be very rude indeed and not say a single swear word – and conversely someone can swear profusely and not offend. (I say that having spent some years working with convicted criminals, some of whom were charming and others who took bad language to a new level.)

  18. James*

    Load of crap. The manager should be written up as well for saying the same words no matter if it wasn’t directed at someone. If the manager endorses the environment of saying those words, don’t be a hypocrite and say except for…

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