Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has banned cursing in e-mails sent by its employees, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. The change comes after the Wall Street bank agreed to pay $550 million to settle civil fraud charges stemming from from the sale of securities that were memorably described in a salty e-mail that was repeatedly referred to in a congressional hearing this year.
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The e-mail, referring to a "shitty deal," offered a field day to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who repeatedly used the language to excoriate Goldman officials in the April hearing. Presumably that embarrassing episode is a major reason Goldman has banned such language in future e-mails.
But completely eliminating cursing on the job may be even harder than eradicating fraud on Wall Street.
In this digital age, dirty words seem to be everywhere. YouTube videos of politicians cursing abound, including rap versions of their potty mouths. There’s a whole website dedicated to tracking curse words on Twitter. And texting would be somehow lacking without borderline profane acronyms like WTF.
And maybe we don't want to go too far in wiping out sailor talk from the workplace: There is evidence that cursing may relieve stress and even foster camaraderie among co-workers.
“I think truck-driving speak has invaded modern language and won't go away,” said trend-spotting guru Marian Salzman, who’s been credited with coining the word “metrosexual.” The cyber age, she added, has accelerated this foul-language phenomenon. “WTF will be the single most common response.”
The Goldman e-mail is hardly the only high-profile case of cursing in corporate America.
Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz made waves when she dropped the f-bomb (on this page) on a reporter this year in a public forum, and the resulting YouTube video generated hundreds of thousands of views and plenty of commentary about her executive style. And not all the comments were negative.
Dan McGinn, an editor at Harvard Business Review, said sometimes cursing could be well placed and effectively show a candid side of a CEO or other leader. “I’m not advocating for swearing, but it can lead to intimacy and authenticity,” said McGinn, who recently wrote an article on the topic titled “Should Leaders Ever Swear?”
But that doesn’t mean you should be sending profane text messages to your underlings, your boss or a hiring manager any time soon.
Even though cursing has become pervasive on the Internet and in many other social forums, it’s still considered unacceptable in many work situations, especially those involving customer relations and job interviews.
“When someone says, ‘I’m sorry, we filled the position,’ you shouldn’t say, ‘That sucks’ or ‘WTF,’” said Ellen Gordon Reeves, author of “Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?”
While such language is usually frowned upon, there can be a double standard when it comes to top executives.
“Swearing is accepted at high levels within an organization,” said Laurie Ruettimann, a recruiting expert and founder of PunkRockHR.com. “Among the rank and file? The riffraff? The hoi polloi? It's frowned upon.”
Letting off steam
Employers have long tried to police obscenities on the job because vulgar language can lead to allegations of sexual harassment. But the explostion of social media Web sites has made it tougher for companies to control what their employees are saying in public.
Be aware that if you curse on your personal blog or Facebook page, your company could fire or demote you — and you may have no legal recourse.
But that doesn't necessarily mean you need to sanitize all your social networking activity, said Steven Rothberg, founder of CollegeRecruiter.com.
Rothberg said hiring managers and recruiters generally understand that "what is said on social media sites is to be taken with a grain of salt as the candidates are typically informally communicating with friends and not with customers or other work-related stakeholders.”
Even some use of profanity on sites like Facebook and Twitter is becoming more acceptable among cutting-edge employers who are looking for workers with a big Web presence and lots of Web followers.
“I have no problem with occasional cursing on Twitter or Facebook,” said Kristy Short, owner of SAS Communications. “People are who they are, and if it boosts followers, more power to them.”
Her view is no doubt informed by the fact that popular tweeter Justin Halpern made a career out of his humorous feed, soon to be a television series under the slightly expurgated title of "$#*! My Dad Says."
Cursing on social media sites
A site called Cursebird.com actually tracks all the cursing going on in the Twitterverse in real time. Needless to say it is updated several times each second. The site also helpfully ranks Twitter feeds, with actor Ashton Kutcher, who has 5 million followers for his @aplusk Twitter feed, ranking as a “drunken sailor” by the site. (In the spirit of full disclosure my @careerdiva Twitter feed was rated as “gangsta rapper” for my periodic cussing.)
If you’re in entertainment, public relations, the media or certain other professions profanity may be more acceptable, said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert with The Protocol School of Texas. But, she added, for those who work with children, in health care, or in many typical corporate jobs, heavy use of profanity may not be the best career move.
A successful high school football coach in Port Sulphur, La., was fired from his post in June because he swore in front of a teacher and students, according to Nola.com. The school board allowed him to remain as a bus driver and physical education teacher.
The movement to rein in cursing can be a lonely one. A group on Facebook advocating a profanity filter on Facebook has a relatively few 700 members. But at least that is more than the 80 members of the “I Love Cursing in Facebook” page.
There is also a new service called SwearJarr that acts like the old idea of putting money into a jar when you cursed. If you swear on Twitter, then you donate a certain amount to the site, which then gives the money to charity.
Not everyone agrees that the Internet and 24-hour access to information is responsible for an increase in profanity.
“It’s reflecting the informal communications among us,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a historian of language and the editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary. “There’s nothing new about it. It’s pretty clear that for a long time people have been using language of this sort in informal circumstances. Now we’re seeing it very easily.”
And there may be hidden benefits to naughty language. Yehuda Buruch, a professor at London’s Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia, studied cursing on the job and found that the practice can be used as a way for colleagues to bond and release stress.
“I don't much care if people who work for me use George Carlin's ‘seven words you can't say on TV,’ ” said Eli Lehrer, national director of the Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate for the Heartland Institute. “I use them myself and don't much care if people who work for me do the same in context.”
“In fact, between workers who get along, it's a sign of comfort and satisfaction that some amount of cursing will happen,” he said.