What The #$%@&!: Why Language and Tone Speak To Effective Leadership

In recent weeks the slurs and vulgar language issued by TV celebrities Samantha Bee, Roseanne Barr, Joy Reid and Joy Behar have not only caused fallout, firings and backlash, but they raise a larger point beyond celebrities and comedy about the level of language most appropriate in leadership.Away from politics, the conversation on profanity and communication can rise to discerning what tone and approach are most effective as a leader. And certainly gender does play a role here, as female leaders are more likely to receive closer scrutiny.[bctt tweet=”#SwearingAtWork is not the most effective way to communicate as a leader. “ username=“takeleadwomen”]“The campaign to punish Bee for crossing a line (her words) was only the latest in a series of efforts that have harnessed the power of social media and the corporate fear of public shaming to get television networks to punish their employees for going too far,” Jeremy Barr writes in The Hollywood Reporter.For anyone who has worked in a corporate culture where a CEO or C-suite level leader speaks off the cuff often with curse words, you know that many times it makes people uncomfortable. Even if the language is not racist, sexist, classist, discriminatory or directed at someone, just throwing around slang can alienate employees and create an environment that is less than ideal.Foul language can create a workplace culture that moves beyond accepting and fun to sloppy and disrespectful.[bctt tweet=“Foul language can create a workplace culture that moves beyond accepting and fun to sloppy and disrespectful. #WorkEtiquette” username=“takeleadwomen”]This month’s Virtual Happy Hour at Take The Lead, “Gender Bilingual Communications: A Look at the Language of Leadership,” on June 13,  tackles this issue and more with Dr. Katherine Giscombe, Vice President & Women of Color Practitioner at Catalyst and Dr. Michael Kimmel, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University.How you communicate and your style of language is critical, particularly as a female leader.“When considering how gender affects communication, keep in mind that with any human interaction, rarely is anything exact,” writes Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., author ofThe Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt How You Lead, in Forbes.For instance, a male CEO may be able to “get away with” swearing and cursing in meetings and considered “a regular guy,” while a female CEO may be judged more harshly and considered crass and unprofessional for the same language.[bctt tweet=“How you communicate and your style of language is critical, particularly as a #femaleleader” username=“takeleadwomen”]“Enlarging your repertoire of communication skills, so you can employ strategies that are most effective under various circumstances, will definitely give you an advantage,” Goman writes. “The most effective communicators, male and female, are masters at balancing power and empathy signals, so that they come across as both confident and caring.”There have historically been workplace rules prohibiting foul language in many companies, and some have been found to be unlawful because they are too broad and prohibitive of free speech.But recently the National Labor Relations Board, found that rules “like those requiring employees to abide by basic standards of civility, will no longer be unlawful.”What that means is you can present reasonable expectations in the form of workplace conduct rules for how employees will interact, and as a leader you need to be sure you model that civility, particularly in language.Policies on profanity may be the solution.“The debate over swearing in the workplace has kept tongues wagging for some time, with some surveys asserting that it makes employers and colleagues question the intelligence, control, and professionalism of vulgar workers, and other studies insisting that cursing relieves stress and creates camaraderie among coworkers,” writes Kyra Kudick in BizJournals.“If you choose to create a policy about profanity, be prepared to consistently enforce the disciplinary process you put in place. Failure to consistently enforce policies makes them toothless, and inconsistency in discipline can leave you open to claims of discrimination,” Kudick writes.But is one leader’s profanity another leader’s casual talk?“When it comes to swearing in the workplace, context is key,” writes Bernard Raybik for The Times. “Employers cannot look at swearing in a vacuum. Instead, they need to consider all the circumstances and ensure they take a measured approach. While there may be no clear line, an employer should never act too hastily and must ensure employees are afforded procedural fairness in all circumstances.”And yes, it does matter the consequence if the person using profanity is the top boss, or is perhaps, a temporary employee, intern or recent hire.“It is only natural that a supervisor might wish to give benefit of the doubt to a good employee who makes a linguistic slip-up, but may terminate a less good employee whose unsavory comment is the ‘last straw,’” Raybik writes.“On the other hand, a supervisor’s use of profanity in the workplace could be found to create a hostile work environment, depending on the frequency and, you guessed it, context. For this reason, all employee complaints about profanity must be taken seriously.”In Society for Human Resource Management, Dana Wilkie writes, “’Work is often stressful, frustrating and demanding, and—depending on the culture of your place of work—expressing your emotions periodically with nasty words might be expected and tolerated,’ said James O’Connor, founder of the Lake Forest, Ill.-based Cuss Control Academy, which aims to ‘increase awareness of the negative impact bad language has on society and on individuals who swear too frequently or inappropriately,’ according to the academy’s website.”According to O’Connor, “It also depends on who is swearing, why, what words are used and who hears them. If the boss swears for any reason, others feel entitled to let their language fly. However, swearing at a co-worker can intensify conflict. Swearing in front of a customer can be a bad reflection on the employee and the company’s reputation. And chronic cursers who swear for no particular reason and don’t know any adjective other than variations on the F-word are no fun to work with.“But to defend foul language, recently, there has been a wave of research, articles and a book praising the use of profanity, causal language and swear words at work.[bctt tweet=“There has been a wave of #research, articles, and a book praising the use of profanity, causal language and swear words at work. “ username=“takeleadwomen”]“Swearing and insults—even ones that can sound quite vicious to the uninitiated—are all part of the banter in many workplaces. It’s good for group bonding, and inclusivity makes for a productive workforce,” writes M.B. Roberts in Parade.Roberts continues, “As Dr. Barbara Plester wrote in her 2007 paper, ‘Taking the Piss: Functions of Banter in the IT Industry,’ “Banter occurs when people are in good humor; when people are playful, they are at their most creative.’”In her 2017 book, Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language author Emma Byrne argues for the use of swear words in the workplace and beyond. Still, she has her caveats.“I certainly wouldn’t want profanity to become commonplace: swearing needs to maintain its emotional impact in order to be effective,” Byrne writes.“The true meaning of a killed communicator is the ability to reflect upon talk and to drive strategies that are likely to be appropriate and effective within a given situation,” write Dorien VanDeMieroop and Jonathan Clifton in The Routledge Handbook of Language in The Workplace.In other words, watch your mouth.