my boss and my coworker have heated arguments with F-bombs

A reader writes:

I have an accounting/finance background, and I started a position about three months ago at a tech start-up with less than 50 people. Because it’s a small start-up, I am currently the only accounting and HR person. On top of that, I’m the only woman in the office and the rest are male.

I love my job so far and I really enjoy working with my colleagues, my boss, and my CEO. However, I have a problem that I don’t know how to solve. My CEO and our top salesperson curse a lot. I don’t have a problem with that because I curse at times. However, when they disagree with each other, they both curse, not at each other, but they throw in a lot of f-bombs and I would only assume it escalates the heated discussion.

I would like to speak to them both about it, not about cursing in general, but the fact that when they get into a heated disagreement they both should stop using the f-bombs. I’m just concerned about the impact on their relationship. My opinion is it’s not healthy if they curse when they’re both heated already. Or should I forget it and let it go because after a few days they’re back to getting along?

How should I approach this and tell them I don’t believe in their communication style? And should I even bring it up? I have no idea what to do.

It doesn’t sound like you necessarily have standing to intervene here.

It’s true that using profanity in an already heated discussion can raise the heat level.

But if they’re just talking to each other and other people aren’t part of the conversation, it’s not really your place to tell them to speak to each other differently. They may both be perfectly fine with having a rough-and-tumble style with each other.

If the issue is that other people overhear it and it’s causing tension and discomfort, that’s more something that you can point out as the HR person. You can’t tell them they need to change it (assuming that you don’t have authority over either of them), but you can point out that it’s potentially an issue. For example: “Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but when you and Fergus argue, it can be heard around the office. When it gets as heated as it sometimes does, I think it’s making people uncomfortable.”

You could also point out that if the organization wants to grow, this is the kind of thing that might work fine when it’s a 20-person organization but that won’t feel so okay when it’s 100 people. Stuff that flies in very small organizations starts feel much more unacceptable after a certain amount of growth. At some point, not professionalizing the place starts seeming really unbecoming. It also makes it hard to recruit and retain good people from different backgrounds and with different communication styles (see: current gender breakdown).

I suppose the other thing you can do is to check in with the salesperson and make sure he’s not feeling verbally abused by the CEO when these conversations go in that direction. If he’s giving it right back, I’m guessing that he doesn’t — and if that’s the case, you risk coming across as a little precious if you ask him about it. So that’s one where you’re going to have to use your judgment based on the specifics of what you’re hearing.

{ 108 comments… read them below }

  1. Falling Diphthong*

    I think you can stay out of this. It sounds like they curse at other times, and this is just a natural extension of that–it’s not like they have targeted the quiet never-curses office mouse for the barrage.

    Fun science: cursing helps alleviate the perception of pain. (So if you stub your toe, “Golly gosh drat” isn’t going to help much, but “&^%$##” will.) So maybe it’s how they reduce the temperature of the argument, via some profanity.

    1. Winger*

      Another way to think about this: as the company’s very first HR person, the OP is in a great situation to guide the culture at a critical moment, before they have 300 employees and become the subject of a piece in Fast Company about the perils of an abusive workplace culture (or whatever.)

    2. Gen*

      Yeah it also really makes a difference if it’s directed at each other ‘you incompetent eff’ vs swearing about the situation in general ‘it’s effed up’ vs swearing about someone ‘he’s an eff’. The first is more likely to escalate the argument with personal insults, the second will probably defuse it (most managers I’ve had have spoken like that but swearing is very normal here) and the third will either a) get back to that specific person or b) make the company look bad either internally or externally. So there is a bit more subtly to it depending on the actual situation rather than just generic swearing. But if it’s audible outside their offices you can always just blanket point out that it’ll be heard by someone from another organisation sooner or later.

      1. Cassandra*

        ^ This is very wise, and ties in to other concerns in the thread about yelling and apparent hostility. If you can stand it, OP, I’d listen a bit longer to the swear-filled conversations to determine and/or actually tally which of the uses is prominent. I’d say that if it’s swearing directly at someone or using swears as pejoratives about a third party (Geo’s 1 and 3), those are problematic enough for you to intervene.

    1. CatCat*

      I LOLed

      I worked in an environment where we had a lot of pressure and pent up stress. We did have nerf guns and the occasional spontaneous nerf battle actually did a tone to ease the pressure.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Ha a friend of mine works somewhere where someone was actually injured by a nerf projectile and sued.

  2. Laura (Needs A New Name)*

    LW, does it make *you* uncomfortable that they are “dropping f-bombs”? If your only concern is their relationship, there is no reason for you to bring this up – they are adults, and they can manage their relationship and communication style. But if *you* are uncomfortable, you can say that directly without having to talk about other reasons they might consider changing this behavior.

    1. Justme*

      I like this answer. Although I would caution the LW that she may not want to frame it that she personally is uncomfortable, but that the escalation and language can make the workplace uncomfortable for other employees. There’s a gender dynamic in her office with her being the only female, and I fear that she saying she’s uncomfortable could backfire on her.

      1. Laura (Needs A New Name)*

        I feel conflicted about feminine deflection tactics like this. On one hand they can be politically savvy and necessary, but on the other hand they can backfire. In this situation, I think pointing to unspecified “other people” runs the risk that it is brushed off – I wouldn’t change my behavior based on how hypothetical other people who might or might not exist or have feelings about me might react, but I would be willing to change my behavior if I knew specifically that my behavior had led to an actual reaction of a real person.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I agree that unless the style of argumentation is is bothering OP or the others, then OP doesn’t have standing to raise the issue. But what’s up with arguing loudly in front of other employees? What’s that about? Because that also sounds stress-inducing and not super appropriate, and that might be a more actionable suggestion (i.e., think about moving to a room that isn’t surrounded by staff bystanders).

      1. Stephanie*

        I agree the arguing in front of other employees is probably the bigger issue. It’d be uncomfortable regardless of the profanity used–perhaps argue it that way so it doesn’t sound like pearl clutching.

          1. Erin*

            +1 what if someone was on a phone call with a client and they overheard the argument? Also it’s being a bystandard to an argument is super distracting if you’re trying to work.

      2. RVA Cat*

        This. TBH, the profanity itself doesn’t sound like the issue here, it’s the YELLING.

      3. MegaMoose, Esq*

        Yeah, I was a little confused at the direction the letter went. I’m sure there are regional and professional difference here, as with anything, but I am firmly in of the belief that (1) a manager should whenever possible praise in public and criticize in private, and (2) as a grown up f-ing adult, no one gets to yell at me for anything other than safety or audibility.

  3. Leatherwings*

    Hm. The swearing aside, it likely is concerning if they’re frequently in heated arguments in full view of other staff. That would bother me far more than an F bomb (or twenty). But unless you’re considered a part of the upper leadership team as an HR person, I agree that it doesn’t sound like you have the standing to address it.

    I don’t think all startups are bad or anything, but I do think this is indicative of some of the culture problems startups often have.

    1. Sami*

      Oof, yeah. Two of the higher-level people in my office snipe at each other in front of staff and it’s SO awkward. The tension and stress in our office as a whole skyrocketed when they started working together.

  4. Stephanie*

    Oof. Yeah, I don’t know how much you’ll be able to do given that it’s the dominant culture and most people seem ok with it. Plus, it’ll come off oddly that you’re policing the tone of conversation between two people.

    I used to work in operations in trucking where profanity was used as punctuation. And this was at a household name company. Corporate, I imagine may have been more toned down (er, maybe). But most people seemed ok with it. That being said, the work environment was overwhelmingly male (er, like 98% literally) and not the most female-friendly.

    1. Thlayli*

      Yeah in some construction companies this wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. Also culture depends. Irish people curse a LOT more than English people for example.

      1. Thlayli*

        wow that was pretty incoherent sorry! But I think you probably get the point. Some industries this is normal and making a fuss will just mark you out as not being a cultural fit.

        1. Electron Wisperer*

          I had a friend from Glasgow (A place which has a rather ‘unique’ take on English, also food, did you know you can batter and deep fry a mars bar?). He moved to London as a teenager and commented that he started getting on better in school once he figured out that “Alright you au’d cunt” was not seen as a friendly greeting when said in passing to the headmaster in London unlike his native Glasgow!

          One of the funnier swearing matches at work is the one that occasionally happens between a couple of our extremely bright DSP engineers, the swearing gets extremely creative, is not always in English, has complex math mixed in and sometimes I learn new words (Always a good thing), but quite often it will suddenly stop with “I apologize, you are of course correct!” as one of them realizes that the math does not back up his position. Nobody bats an eyebrow.

          Our office is mostly fine with swearing as long as it is creative, and ideally has reasonably good grammar (“F**K” fails on creativity, “This toxic get of a diseased c**m-nugget has just crashed my laptop”, heard earlier today from a female co worker, did not raise an eyebrow, but did have several people taking notes), but that is very much a local custom thing.

          We are not customer facing and stress can be high, usually the swearing is in frustration at the tools (Mainly CAD systems, which ALL suck) rather then individuals.

          1. Thlayli*

            Haha I think I would like the culture in your workplace.

            I’ve been to Glasgow and that sounds pretty accurate lol

    2. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

      I’m part of “corporate” for a large creative company. It’s not always toned down. :P

      1. Stephanie*

        Yeah, when we had visitors from corporate they were cursing with the rest of us. :P

    3. Spreadsheets and Books*

      I’m in Corporate for a F500 with a conservative reputation. Not toned down. At all. I’m glad; I like it this way.

    4. Statler von Waldorf*

      One of the hardest things I had to do when I left the oilpatch and started working white-collar office jobs was to retrain my professional language filters. While in the oilpatch you might get high-fived for using a sentence where every single word is a swear word, in most offices that gets more of a horrified gasp.

      1. Elfie*

        The best sentence I ever heard that contained nothing but swearing was the following :
        The f*cking f*cker’s f*cked. It conveys so much with so little. But then, I am particularly impressed with inventive cursing.

  5. Czhorat*

    Changing the behavior of ones boss is almost always a heavy lift as it runs opposite the normal direction of power.

    The CEO runs the place; it’s very unlikely that you have the kind of relationship in which you can give them advice. My take? This is part of the culture. If you believe it to be toxic, then you might think about being ready to look elsewhere.

    1. Statler von Waldorf*

      Seconding this. Policing the tone of conversation of your CEO NEVER goes over well, IME. I wouldn’t push back at all, if this bothers enough to quit then I would recommend polishing up your resume and starting a job hunt. My opinion would only change if they were swearing at you, then you might have standing to push back. As it is, I think using “morale” as an excuse to bring it up will backfire.

    2. Chinook*

      If the OP is the only female and only non-tech person, then she may have standing to bring the swearing/yelling to the CEO’s attention, though. I was in her shoes in one job and, while I was lucky that my CEO was mild mannered and polite, I know he would often bounce things off me because I was the office manager/bookkeeper/office gopher and, as a result, I saw things differently then he and his tech employees did. He honestly wanted the company to succeed and openly admitted that he hired people to fill the roles he couldn’t do well and he wanted feedback.

      For example, after two employees were fired within a month, he asked me if there was a sense of worry about job security in the office in general. I pointed out that he handled everything above board and both guys were fired for cause – one for not having the skills and giving every opportunity to improve and the other for trying to sell drugs to a coworker.

      If he and his brother (the VP) ever got into a loud shouting match, I could totally see mentioning to him the next day that the yelling made those of us in the office uncomfortable and then offer to find better insulation for his walls (I helped plan the office redesign when we moved). But, then again, Jon was an awesome boss who was also very self aware.

    3. Former Retail Manager*

      Couldn’t agree more with Czhorat. If it is that bothersome to you, might be time to look elsewhere.

  6. LSP*

    This got me thinking about the fact that both my husband and I tend to swear a lot in our personal lives. (It took a lot of practice to stop cursing around our son once he was old enough to parrot us.) Most of the time I don’t think anything of it, but when someone swears in anger, it really feels different. I almost never drop the f-bomb in anger (though it’s every other word when I’m just chatting with my friends), and when I hear other people do it I tense up and it really stresses me out. My husband will yell it at the top of his lungs when playing video games, and I know to him it’s nothing, but it makes me so anxious I often will just go into my sewing room to get away (Often to only curse silently to my machine when the bobbin doesn’t load right!)

    If I were hearing angry, loud swearing (especially the “big F”) at work, it would add a great deal to my stress. OP, please say something to someone. As the HR person, I think you have standing.

    1. Discordia Angel Jones*

      Yeah I swear a lot. A LOT. So much that people in the past have commented about how I don’t look like a sweary person and they are surprised when I open my mouth (not that I know what a sweary person looks like tbh).

      I swear at work, but I don’t know… my current office is also very sweary. I’d like to think I’d be able to restrain myself in a less sweary office but to be completely honest I don’t even think about all the F bombs I drop or realise I drop them!

      It might be a case of that. BUT I do think that if OP is uncomfortable with the swears and it affects office morale/atmosphere then they can raise it. But not necessarily expect a favourable response to it.

      1. just being silly*

        Sweary people look like pirates – the way pirates look in cartoons, not actual real pirates.

    2. WhichSister*

      My son is now 18, but when he was 4 he got in trouble at day care for using a “bad word.” I asked what word it was and they spelled it for me. I laughed and said “well he must have picked it up here because that’s not one we use at home.” The woman’s face was classic!

      1. DecorativeCacti*

        I brought home “mother effer” from preschool when I was three. My mom said she was proud of me for using it right (called the dog a name when she hit me in the face with her tail), but I still got in trouble.

    3. TootsNYC*

      yeah, coupling anger w/ swearing really amps up the stakes for me. That’s when it begins to feel like “verbal violence.”

      The swearing on its own isn’t such a big deal, and the anger might not be so huge. But when you put anger behind swear words, or a marked increase in swear words drops into an angry conversation, that’s REALLY unsettling to me.

      1. Cobol*

        I think the coupling it’s what is getting to OP as well, but for me (meaning if you were making the evaluation about how I was talking) a curse word is not a separate category of word. Me arguing and saying “I disagree with that,” and “That’s bull(curse word),” indicate an equal level of anger.

        1. Bookworm*

          But I think that’s unusual.

          I’ve worked in some pretty casual offices and swearing has never been verboten, but “I disagree with that” still reads to me as a huge leap from “That’s bull” (frankly, even without the swear word). One seems like professional disagreement, the other seems like an implication that a coworker is stupid or lying.

          I think dropping swears in office disagreements is enough outside the normal scope of professional boundaries that many people would find it off-putting, even if they didn’t speak-up.

          1. Cobol*

            Oh I’ll agree with most of that. (I’ve worked in some swear heavy environments. I think it’s much more common than people who don’t think.) It’s more we often view things through our own lens, and that gets people heading down the wrong track. Bull vs. BS would have been a better comparison for me to use.

            1. Bookworm*

              Gotcha. Yeah, the bull vs. BS distinction seems arbitrary to me as well. I think I just got hung up on the example then.

        2. TootsNYC*

          Saying, “I = disagree with that” and shouting “I disagree with that” is a strong difference.

          So is saying “I fucking disagree with that” if you would *normally* say “I disagree with that.” That’s the very reason WHY swear words exist!

          If that difference in wording is accompanied by a wry tone, that turns the emphasis up some, but not that much.

          But if you combine the addition of the swear word with an angry tone…

      2. LSP*

        “Verbal violence.”

        I like that. And that’s exactly what it feels like when I hear people shouting swear words. I don’t like shouting much on its own tbh, but when “f$@#” is added into the mix, I get extremely uncomfortable.

  7. Erica B*

    I think that if that’s how they are arguing you could suggest that when they sense the situation blowing up, to go into an office and close the door. My boss drops f-bombs all the time when he gets frustrated and angry, and he works in the same space as my coworker and I, so we don’t have a closed door space to go to. I put on my noise cancelling headphones- they work wonders

  8. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

    I am a VP at a nearly 1,000 person creative company. I am female. I swear like a sailor.

    In fact, my conversations with our male CEO, heated or not, are often peppered with colorful language. In fact, many times, throwing in a few choice words during a heated exchange actually serves to de-escalate our conversations.

    Given that, there is a regional executive I have never in my life cursed in front of and don’t plan to start, because she does not herself, and would not take it in the same spirit our CEO does.

    It’s a personal choice thing. And increasingly No Big Deal in a lot of corporate environments.

  9. KellyK*

    Unfortunately, as the only woman in a small start up, I see lots of ways this can go badly for the OP, like being pegged as the over-sensitive woman or the fun-killing stickler for excessive professionalism. I like Alison’s advice of only bringing it up as the HR person if it’s hurting morale in general. Whether it’s emotionally healthy for them to curse each other out is their problem.

    If it’s bothering you specifically and you don’t really have a good way to get away from it (or drown it out with headphones), then it’s reasonable to ask them to cool it. You can frame it as a work issue and keep it low-key, again to avoid the over-sensitive girl stereotype. I mean, I feel gross saying what’s basically, “Take up as little space as possible, and be super-accommodating to your boss’s & coworker’s desire to get into sweary shouting matches.” But, you know your CEO better than we do, you know how much this is bothering you better than we do, and startup culture can be pretty hostile to people, especially women, pushing for more professionalism than they’re used to.

      1. Cobol*

        Insisting on referring to your boss as Mr. Nelson when he wants to be called Dave is excessive professionalism.

        1. Beancounter Eric*

          I have never, nor will ever address my superiors by first name……Mr./Ms./Mrs. and Sir/Ma’am.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Wait, really? Even if they ask you to and everyone else in the office calls them by their first name? Why?

            Professionalism doesn’t just mean “be formal”; it means read cultural cues and act in a way that will make people comfortable working with you (within reason).

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              (I should add, if you work in an unusual field where that’s normal to do, that’s of course different. But that’s a pretty important piece of context if so!)

          2. Cobol*

            Can I ask why? Ultimately that means you’re probably self-selecting the best work environment for you, but I’ve literally never called anybody I work with Mr./Mrs. I usually work in casual field in a liberal city, but that hooks true when I worked in banking in a conservative state as well.

          3. ancolie*

            That would not fly at a former job of mine. It was a financial services company (generally a more established, conservative type of field) but company policy was that everyone was on a first name basis there. Yes, this meant that if I ever found myself talking to or emailing the CEO, I’d call him (for example) Tom, not Mr. Sawyer.

            Obviously, with external contacts, we were to follow their preferences.

            It’d be different if if was that YOU want to be called Mr. Beancounter instead of Eric. But if Dave Nelson directly tells you that he prefers to be called Dave, insisting that you instead call him Mr. Nelson is rude. It’s saying that you don’t care what he prefers, you’re going to do what you want. Too bad, so sad.

        2. Bookworm*

          You could make an argument that refusing to call someone by their preferred name isn’t professional at all, but rather rude. So it just depends on how we’re going to define professional.

          I think Beancounter Eric is trying to suggest that professionalism means a comfortable, effective office – and in theory, you probably couldn’t have too much of that.

          1. Bookworm*

            Ok, he posted a reply at the same time I did – so clearly I misinterpreted his previous reply. Whoops!

          2. Beancounter Eric*

            I was raised in the Southern United States, and am old enough that I was taught one uses “Sir” and “Ma’am”, and as a child, would have been severely admonished, most likely with force, for failing to do so.

            I’ve told superiors in the past when they try to shift me to first name address that I apologize, but trying to change that trait with me will be about as successful as my flapping my arms to get airborne. It just isn’t happening.

            1. Cobol*

              That may be hurting you a lot. (It may not be too), but adhering to something you learned a long time ago in a completely different environment would indicate an unwillingness to change/adapt? In today’s world that’s a career-killer.

              Even if it’s not that. Is be super uncomfortable with a direct report who called me Mr. It would unconsciously cause me to spend less time with them/choose somebody else to work with me on a big project.

              1. Beancounter Eric*

                I apologize if my tone comes across as a bit defensive, but here goes:

                I’m currently trying to drive the company I work for towards a paperless/low paper office along with upgrades to our information systems, improvements in our reporting tools, and reducing the time required for month-end close. In past companies, I’ve driven system conversions, been closely involved in software design, supported several CFO’s and built an Accounting Department from more-or-less the ground up.

                They all involve change, sometimes radical change.

              2. Beancounter Eric*

                Again, I apologize for any defensiveness in my tone. Also, for “blowing my own horn”.

                1. Cobol*

                  That’s the issue with perception things. They aren’t based on what you are more often than not.
                  I have no way of knowing anything about your career. You very well could have had positive effects from calling people sir/ma’am. If I was coaching you I’d say refer to people how they ask to be referred to in almost all occasions (with some notable exceptions AAM HD identified)

            2. Erica B*

              While I understand that southerners use Sir and Ma’am quite often, as a New Englander, I don’t like it- it makes me feel old. I don’t really know any woman who likes to be “ma’am-ed”. Occasionally is one thing, but all the time- no thank you. I”m curious where on the map it’s considered the norm/not-norm.

              I would find it very weird to Mr/Ms/Mrs my boss too. Heck I use first names with my kids teachers and other at the school.

              1. Marillenbaum*

                On the other hand, when I was in my early 20s and working in college admissions in the South, I definitely raised an eyebrow if a student didn’t use ma’am. Double eyebrows if they called me by my first name. I am Ms. Baum or “ma’am”; you are 17 and do not get to call me Marille. Part of that was making my authority clear when the students were only five years younger than me, but part of it was simply that I am an adult here, and they needed to address me the way they would address my boss.

  10. BritCred*

    My only time I’ve picked up on this and done anything about it is when a new person in the office didn’t have a volume control and the person on the other end of my phone call paused at the rude, swearword laden, very loud joke. Unfortunately the MD was involved in the conversation and didn’t realise just how close they were to my desk I think.

    A side mention to my line manager – admitting that I know I’m not the cleanest language person but not at volume and near other peoples phone calls or meetings – and the information filtered through. The Swearer had a sore head about it because he took it as his “shop floor language” wasn’t good enough for “some people” up here in the offices but the MD and everyone else was respectful of the situation and I never had to put another customer on hold or apologise for what they just heard.

    If it wasn’t for the customer on the other end of the phone I’d have said nothing about it though.

  11. Roscoe*

    I wouldn’t say anything. That could just be how they talk to each other. Its not on you to try to manage their relationship.

  12. Just J.*

    LW, do you work for my company? Your company culture (and size) sounds a lot like mine. When our CEO and / or COO get really, really mad, the f-bombs fly. Sometimes directed at each other, but usually just used in context to express frustration when they are discussing difficult office issues, and most always behind closed office or conference rooms doors (but those rooms are seriously not sound proof at those decibel levels). This is simply how our office roles. We know our CEO and COO run hot. Note though, f-bombs are never, ever directed at staff-at-large.

    I think the script Allison suggests is spot on. Our HR has said very similar things to our CEO and COO. We are in growth mode too and the number of f-bombs have dropped off considerably as we try to be more aware and more professional (civilized???) for our new hires.

  13. Cube Ninja*

    I treat profanity as an art form in my personal life and take delight in creating new and innovative permutations of words (like f-mint, for example). :)

    Personally, I try very hard to keep myself under wraps in the office until or unless I’ve established relationships where I know it’s ok. However, once that door has opened, it’s pretty much going to stay open in my experience.

    With that said, I largely agree with others in that while you don’t have a lot of standing (or potential gain) in bringing it up as an interpersonal relationship thing, there’s certainly a valid concern if it rises to a level that makes you uncomfortable or if it’s likely to cause strife with clients or more importantly, prospective clients. While I personally would appreciate working with a firm who isn’t afraid to cut loose a little bit, there’s still a certain level of professionalism that I expect in terms of those I’m working with.

  14. Hnl123*

    I work in a very curse-word heavy environment. The cursing is never aimed *at* anyone. I can often hear S-bombs and F-bombs being dropped throughout the office. Usually when annoying emails come in from clients.

    Since I also curse a lot, it actually makes me feel *more* comfortable in the office with people swearing. But I realize this isn’t the case here.

    Perhaps you could suggest that the two close their door, or move to a closed conference room or something? That way, even if others aren’t uncomfortable with the swearing, they won’t be distracted by the escalating arguing. Because even if they weren’t dropping f-bombs, the fact that they are arguing at all would make me uncomfortable…. or at least very curious and nosy about what’s going on.

    But if the swearing is ever aimed *at* anyone, I would immediately jump in. But if they’re complaining that a vendor is bleeping slow, or something… I think that’s ok.

  15. Ramona Flowers*

    I agree that this probably isn’t your problem to solve. But I do wonder if it’s actually the problem at all, or if there’s another problem and this is just a symptom. What struck me was the OP saying “when they disagree”. How often is that happening? Are we talking twice in three months or, like, every day? Are they butting heads over strategy, or what? This completely isn’t my field and I don’t know what it’s like to work in a start-up, so I’m wondering if it’s expected that you’d argue a lot, or if this is a sign that people somehow aren’t on the same page in terms of direction or strategy in a way that could impact other staff?

    1. Cobol*

      I’ve worked with a lot of start-ups and disagreements can be par for the course. Each one is different obviously, but I wouldn’t read into it being an indicator.

  16. Data analyst*

    For years I worked in an office that was fairly mild mannered. For whatever reason that was just our prevailing culture. Swearing wasn’t completely unthinkable but it was not super common, and tended toward more PG level than R. It always amused me to see new hires acclimatize. No one ever said anything to them, just each day they would swear less and less until after about a week they matched the others.

    One day a newly hired executive paid us a visit from corporate and held an all-hands. The executive delivered a profanity-laden, aggressive pep talk about how we were going to “kick the shit out of our competitors”. He probably delivered more f-bombs in 15 minutes than the rest of our 100-person office had dropped over the previous year. The whole office was shocked, not because we were all delicate flowers who had never seen a Quentin Tarratino movie, but because it was so jarringly outside of our norms of professionalism. He came across as belligerent and out of control, and not as someone who was fit to lead.

    Later on I learned that on future occasions our director tipped off visiting executives about our prevailing culture in the elevator ride up, and there was never a repeat.

    1. Bea*

      I swear frequently and just dropped a full f in front of the owner last week in passing. But I’ve also started everyone taking it to an abbreviation of just “ef” as in “what the ef”.

      Yet that plus my background as the only woman among men, including long haul truckers would still not prepare me for what I’m imagining that executive doing. It sounds downright crude to talk about kicking the shhht out of the competition. Unless this is MMA, why anyone would be that kind of belligerent is beyond me, ick! I’m happy he stopped though, that’s a plus and gives me more hope he’s just poorly trained in getting everyone fired up to work on goals.

  17. TootsNYC*

    what would bother me is the extreme yelling, and the additional hostility that swear words normally denote.

    That stuff is a form of “verbal violence” sometimes, and it’s not a bad move to suggest to the CEO that the company work to minimize it. It’s hard to overhear for a great many people. And it involves everyone, not just the two people who are going at it.

    1. Cobol*

      I said this upstream, but I’d caution against thinking swear words usually denote anything. In many region/fields they’re just another word.

      1. TootsNYC*

        It’s not their casual presence in normal or joking communication.

        it’s the -addition- of them when someone is angry.

        1. Cobol*

          Casual or angry my point is just because you attribute more malice with profanity does not mean that there is.
          The yelling I don’t think should happen. The profanity does not appear to be an indicator in this situation, and the assumption that it is, is cultural not universal.

  18. Daffodil*

    I once worked in an area where there were two managers with big egos who didn’t like each other. Every few months they’d get into yelling matches – I don’t think they actually swore, but they’d have heated arguments that would last for an hour or so, bouncing back and forth between their offices. Then they’d both fume for the rest of the day. It was intimidating and uncomfortable for everyone else who worked in the same area (all of whom reported to one or the other of them). The only reason we didn’t take it to HR was that they never yelled at anyone else, and they were always back to their normal working relationship the next day. This was apparently how they blew off steam.

    If what’s happening in your office is like that, and it’s clearly making lots of people uncomfortable, I’d encourage you to speak up. But if it’s not bothering the rest of the office, it’s unprofessional behavior on their part but probably not worth sticking your nose into.

  19. Business Cat*

    OP, if it’s happening in your general periphery, could you envision a scenario where you just directly asked them to knock it off? Beyond the cursing issue, it’s not overly sensitive or being difficult to ask people to take their argument elsewhere since you’re presumably trying to get your work done. I have a hard time focusing on my work when my coworker is *singing* down the hall; it would annoy the ever-living hell out of me to try to work while others are heatedly arguing in my general area.

    Additionally, in agreement with what many others are saying, you definitely have standing as HR to suggest that loudly, heatedly arguing in front of their employees may not be a best practice for the long-term health of their business.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I like this last paragraph a lot. I don’t care about the cussing, but the yelling would drive me right up the wall.

      Do these bosses realize that people are learning this is acceptable here? What if everyone started yelling and cussing at the top of their lungs for any reason? How would that impact the biz/productivity levels/quality? Ask them to think if this is what they want the business they want the business to shape into.

      Catch this: If you target the yelling and say nothing about the swearing that will side step that whole issue. BUT the swearing will automatically go down when the yelling goes down.

  20. PizzaDog*

    A pointed “can everybody just fucking relax?” maybe? Kidding, mostly.

    If they’re arguing next to you and it’s wrecking your concentration (even if it isn’t), say so. “Can you guys take this outside or at least take it down a notch?”

  21. Beachlover*

    From what I can tell, the OP is fairly new hire (3 months). This may just be their dynamic, and everyone else is used to it. One of my old bosses and I had a really great relationship, we had worked together for long time and were friends as well as co-workers. However, there were times when we had “discussions” about work issues. Not cussing, but raised voices (well there may have been couple of cuss words used) . I recall once when a new admin, walked into the office during a discussion. She stopped and quickly turned around and left, I had to explain to her later, that everything was fine, and not to worry.

  22. Shadow*

    The culture goes as the CEO goes. And unless you have the type of relationship where youre pretty certain your CEO is open to this type of feedback drop it.

  23. Blurgle*

    It’s not so much the F-bomb strafing run as it is the tirade. Not only is it threatening, it is counter-productive.

    OP, when someone overhears a violent argument their body reacts as if a threat exists; the adrenal glands release adrenaline which gets the body ready to respond to the threat physically. But adrenaline has another effect; it slows down conscious thought. (This is a feature and not a bug; the caveman who mindlessly runs away from the tiger is more likely to survive than the caveman who stops to think about his predicament.) Your employees may very well be pretending not to notice or be bothered but they may actually be suffering from an adrenaline rush that reduces their ability to do the work they’ve been hired to do.

    And that’s the best case scenario. Maybe your boss has to date cherry-picked people who could tolerate the Lee Elia Experience without freaking out, but if he wants to grow his business he’s going to eventually hire people for whom that kind of tirade is a reminder of past abuse. Does he really want to trigger a veteran’s – or a child abuse victim’s – PTSD? Does he really want to remind a project lead of the ex-partner who beat him black and blue? How much money is he willing to waste replacing good workers who won’t or can’t tolerate that kind of nonsense?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Thank you from those of us with worn out adrenal glands. Screaming hits me on the same level as being trapped in a burning building. Of course that is my problem and no one else’s. However, no one should be subjected to routine scream-a-thons. It does where down your health. And insurance costs will go up according to how much employees are using it. Stressed out employees are going to be at the doc’s more often.

      1. Junior Dev*

        Yes, I swear a lot and have no trouble with people swearing in everyday conversation, but yelling or swearing directed *at* someone is very stressful to me. I’ve had workplaces where overhearing other people yell at each other led to me crying in the bathroom.

        1. Blurgle*

          To me yelling without swearing is just as bad as yelling with. It’s the volume and the force, not the words used.

  24. Green Tea Pot*

    Sounds like the high-tech startup I worked for in the 1980s. The principles had very loud confrontations. It was nerve wracking for the rest of us.

    It might be tolerated in some industries today, but I’m not aware of any.

  25. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I have a small story that may/may not give some insight. I had a boss who cussed but not a lot. He was one of my favorite bosses of my life. We got along well. As we got to know each other we learned we could talk about stuff. So one day he blurts out “You never swear.” [See, they notice.] I assured him I was pretty normal at home but with a public facing job….. Well he could not let go it this topic and he went on and on. [Good thing he was one of my favorite bosses.] He had something in his hand that he keep tapping on the counter. Predictably, he dropped it. “Aw, sh!t!” As he bent down to pick up the mess, he said, “I why do I hear two people laughing when you’re the only one in the store?” I said, “I rest my case.” And the CUSTOMER explained it to him. Whoops.

    You may be able to say something to your boss about the swearing later after you have built up a good solid base as a reliable employee and a reputation as a person whose opinion is valuable. I think targeting the yelling for now is your best bet and I think that is a very reasonable request. You could also point out that it’s not good for their own health to get so upset on a regular basis.

  26. Anon for this one*

    Did I write this a year ago? I’m pretty sure I could have written this a year ago.

    Some items of note not yet brought up – 100% from personal experience:

    -You come from A&F. That means your role as HR is mostly symbolic in this – and most other – *small* start ups. In their (mgmt’s) heads, it goes like this: “hm, we’re getting to like 20-30 people…we should probably get someone for HR….but we don’t REALLY need a full time HR….but what does HR do? hmm…well…payroll..comp and ben, maybe some 401ks and 1099s…but our accountant does those! Well SHE (you can argue all day but it mostly happens to women in this role) could probably do both! Tada! You now run HR. Congratulations.

    -“Symbolic” in this case, means that they’re not really looking for you to be a “culture driving-strategy developing-policing the state”- type of role. They need someone they can call their HR person and who they think can handle when Han and Chewie get mad at each other and need to vent. Or when someone needs to fill out the EEOC form.

    None of this is a knock, I promise, and – leveraged correctly – you can turn this into a very senior position as your company grows. But right now you’re feeling the IMHRNOWSOTHISISWHATHRDOES thing and you don’t get ahead by feeling like you “have to do the HR thing” when no one is in trouble or is asking for help. Litmus: if you were just in your accounting role, would you feel the NEED to bring this up? If not, leave it alone.

    How you DO help yourself and your company grow and mature and create the correct culture (which may include lots of f-bombs…) is to seek out the HR related items a growing and expanding company needs. I.e. a solid recruitment process that can identify correct candidates, because the cost of recruitment and attrition can be astronomical in small companies – and have it documented (for those pesky EEOC things). An open channel with your staff that they can come to you if they really feel threatened, mismanaged, disillusioned, etc. A comp/ben structure that can sustain growth – because it’s really awesome to offer x, y, z benefits to EVERYONE when you’re 25 people, but less awesome (and financially infeasible) to offer them to 100 people.

    And a LOT of reading AAM. Like, all 500+ pages of it. Make it a morning routine – first 15 min in the office is AAM time.

    And above all else, as the only woman in your position, do not let your HR role turn into an admin role. These are your mantras from here on forward:

    “Sorry, I’m in the middle of close, someone else will need to order lunch for the group.”
    “Did you mean to send this (any admin task) to me? We don’t have an admin so you can go ahead and plan that on your own.” Without a beat.
    ::CEO asks you to schedule a meeting space:: “I’ll have Chewie do it.” Delegate. Delegate. Delegate.

    Good luck. But with the right mindset, you won’t need it. :)

  27. copy run start*

    It’s tech, in my experience f-bombs are normal, along with other forms of cursing, even at well-established outfits. Arguing (especially heated arguments involving shouting or insults to coworkers or customers) is generally not ok. The larger places like mine isolate the techies from the rest of the folk who keep the business running though. We are literally in another building, so I have no idea if Finance drops f-bombs like we do in the trenches, but it sure feels like a different place over there.

    If it’s bothering someone you can bring it up, but I wouldn’t expect anything to change. I think the tone of the conversation is more important than the words used (unless things are directed at a coworker or customer). You can have a threatening conversation without a single curse word. And they’re definitely not needed for shouting matches.

  28. Fish Microwaver*

    What about starting a swear jar? Evety time someone uses cuss words they have to contribute to the swear jar. The fine could be $1 each word and be donated to a local shelter or other good cause. Having to kick in a buck each time might make them realize how OTT their cursing is.

  29. gsa*

    I just scanned the 80 some odd comments…

    If I were in an HR position, like the LW, I would be very concerned about the future. What would happen if the company grew, and someone was offended and called HR regarding the flurry or f-bombs, or even the loud arguments?

    Just so y’all know, I am a saint… :D

  30. GirlwithaPearl*

    I’m less concerned about cursing than I am about there being one woman out of 31 employees.

    1. Cobol*

      Honestly I’m picturing an ethical version of boiler room. It’s a yelly sweary male dominated field.

  31. Sue Wilson*

    after a few days they’re back to getting along?

    Wait, they’re actually getting MAD at each other to the point that it takes a few days to start getting along again? Advise them that they might want to take this to a private space. Then, figure out if them being mad at each is impacting work or communication in the few days they take to start getting along again. You have some leverage there.

  32. Tempest*

    I had a relationship like this with a manager many years ago. We’d take it to the farthest area possible when we screamed at each other, but I’m sure others could still hear it. There would be threats of parting ways and swear words and then we’d both walk away, get back to work and cool down, and be fine with each other! I get that it wasn’t the most professional that other people could hear, but he was fiery, I was fiery, we got wildly angry with each other in the heat of the moment and then it was over and no one cared. The two other guys who’d been there for ages knew what he was like and what I was like, and they weren’t concerned. I loved him to bits and I’m pretty sure he felt the same. We parted ways because the company changed hands and everyone moved along due to how the new owners ran the place, not each other.

    Unless it’s making someone other than you, the newest person who doesn’t really know what they’re like uncomfortable, I’d pretty much leave it alone. If you wanted to ask Fergus if he’s ok with it, that might be the only way to go. I’d have told you that was just me and boss and it was no big deal. He didn’t really mean what he said, neither did I and no one was upset about it at all five minutes after it happened. Again, maybe not the most professional of relationships outside looking in, but we got the job done and we’d have done anything for each other, f bombs and yelling and hand waving not withstanding.

    1. Catalyst*

      This! I was going to point this out. Sometimes people just work things out that way, they yell and curse, then walk away and cool down and are totally fine with each other. I think how they interact outside of these heated discussions/arguments is really important before you speak to them about morale. If they get along great otherwise, I think you should probably leave it alone (unless they are doing this at reception with people coming in and it’s a concern that it might scare off customers or something similar). I used to get into it with one of my construction managers about him and his people not getting me their information on time (story of your life when you are in accounting as I’m sure you know) and there was a lot of swearing, and argument but this was in his office and then we were great. I moved on from that company because I moved across the country but he is still someone I keep in contact with and miss.

      1. Tempest*

        Yeah, I’ve lost contact with mine as I’ve moved countries and it was many years ago we worked together but I do miss him. I think it was like one of the most familial relationships I ever had at work. He clearly saw me as a younger family member. He taught me lots, but he didn’t always know better but didn’t like to hear that either, hence the fighting. I’d go back to work for him in a heartbeat. Our heated arguements were nothing anyone needed to worry about because we weren’t worried. I don’t think that’s the kind of relationship you can look for or anticipate with a boss, but we found ourselves there and it worked for us, no need for anyone else’s concern at all. Which might not be how Fergus feels, but I’d be very careful of going in all guns blazing without finding out the lay of the land first. It might only be an issue if they’re offending clients. It might really be ok with them that they swear at each other. I use the F-bomb away from customers for everything from anger to incredulousness to joy.

  33. ilikeaskamanager*

    In our office, cursing in the workplace is considered a violation of company policy. We classify it as creating a hostile work place or a bullying environment. It is made very clear to all new employees and we reinforce it at regular employee meetings.

  34. Parenthetically*

    after a few days they’re back to getting along

    Egads, does this mean that for a few DAYS these two are sniping at each other? That’s way worse than the swearing itself IMO. I agree with the person above who said that this is an opportunity to help guide and shape the culture, because how long can a company thrive when it’s a normal thing for the boss to have loud, swear-filled arguments that change their entire dynamic for DAYS? You’re in HR, so I would think you absolutely have standing to address the “healthy office dynamic/relationships between bosses and reports” issues here.

  35. Tedious Cat*

    This all makes me fondly remember a beloved past boss:

    Me, at the end of the weekly meeting: We cussed 42 times today. I kept track.
    Boss: That seems low for us.
    Me: Well, you were a half-hour late.

    (all-female department in a library)

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