Home > Working Conditions > Dealing With Offensive Language at Work

Dealing With Offensive Language at Work

By: Kevin Watson MSc - Updated: 25 Nov 2019 | comments*Discuss
Offensive Language Work Policy Law

Everyone has heard offensive language at work. Some have used it and a few people employ it regularly, seemingly without a second’s thought.

The point is that offensive language is an age-old problem. But it has no place in any organisation that is genuinely striving to achieve a friendly and productive working environment. Offensive language upsets many people, and can distract them from their work. It also calls into question the attitude and ethics of the person who’s using the language.

Counter Argument

The often-heard counter argument to this is that people shouldn’t be so easily offended. They should realise that offensive language is usually a way of relieving stress. It can also create a feeling of camaraderie among a particular group.

This argument ignores some crucial issues, however. Offensive language doesn’t necessarily relieve stress. In fact, It can make it worse. Such language also has a way of being addictive. When one person uses it, another may join in. This obviously leads to more offensive remarks. And the alleged camaraderie offensive language creates comes at a cost. Many people feel disgust for the group that indulges in bad language.

Workers’ Right

HR sections have studied the use of offensive language at work. Their point of view is universal and crystal clear – nobody should use offensive language in the workplace. Workers have a right to expect to hear civil, reasonable language at all times.

The reality, of course, is different. Offensive language occurs to varying degrees. Some of it is simple swearing but at other times, the language expresses clichéd and perverse comments about Race, Sexuality, gender, Religious Belief, age and Disability. But whatever the nature of the language, if it causes offence, then it’s inappropriate.

This may seem extreme. The charge levelled against this approach is that it is political correctness gone mad, and that what may be offensive to one person is not offensive to another. But what an employer must do is think seriously about the implications of any offensive language. For instance, if an employee complains about the use of offensive language, how will the employer deal with it?

An employer must therefore place offensive language in the context of the law. The legislation that protects staff from Discrimination, bullying and harassment, and which promotes equal opportunities, is relevant in this regard.

Work Policy

The next step is for an employer to create a policy about the use of offensive language. The aim of the policy must be to deal with such language in accordance with the law and reasonable practice. The policy should begin by clarifying that an employer must offer a safe working environment for all staff. The point here is that the issue of safety encompasses the need to reduce the use of offensive language to a minimum.

The policy must then address the question of what “offensive language” actually means. All workplaces need procedures that can review this matter in a reasonable way. It can help if the policy makes direct reference to the law. For example, language is offensive if it includes unreasonable and biased comments about someone’s religion, sexuality, race, age, gender or disability.

The policy must also answer the problem of “accepted and commonplace” banter in the workplace. Employers defending themselves against charges of allowing offensive language at work have used this phrase. They have maintained that certain language cannot be offensive if it is accepted and commonplace. Court cases have shown, however, that this defence is weak. Even employees who have themselves used offensive language at work have brought cases to court and won compensation.

Finally, the policy must support those workers who wish to complain about the use of offensive language. It should advise concerned employees to take immediate action by speaking to a member of HR or their manager. It should also guarantee that complainants will not suffer victimisation, bullying or harassment.

Awareness and Training

An employer must ensure all staff are aware of the policy on the use of offensive language, and the best way to do this is by running training sessions. At these sessions, trainers can introduce related topics, such as equality and diversity. An employer must also train managers so that they are fully conversant with the policy and its procedures. Managers must understand precisely how they should go about investigating complaints regarding the use of offensive language.


Employees must have confidence that any complaint they make receives a prompt, thorough and fair hearing. Only then will they come forward and raise their concerns, allowing their employer to reduce the incidence of offensive language at work.

Dealing With Bullying

Have you experienced bullying in the workplace? For advice on who to talk to and the regulations that can be used to tackle it, read our article Your Rights Regarding Bullying In The Workplace.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
After an employee threw money in my face infront of a customer, I then said to the employee "your act disgust me and what you did is stupid. Now I am suspended for saying that.
Nthabiseng - 25-Nov-19 @ 4:02 AM
I was working as a third party in a company when a group of 3 person where engaging in a lot of swearing.i asked the main person to stop as I found it disrespectful offensive and against my Christian Beliefs, They continued and stated it's there work place they can swear as much as they like. I tried to reason that I'm trying to work in the area and I such behaviour is inappropriate. They then argued i should Shut My F Mouth and do my job and as soon as my back is turned they will be registering a complaint with my company and this ain't the first time they had done this. I asked what for as your the one swearing around me and at me .I was told the word of 3 of us verses yours is more weight than yours.i told them to do it.The security was called but I was already leaving . I was distraught and broke down and had difficulty completing my days work. On return to my company i was asked to make a statement in which I did and their Q&A asked did I raise my voice or acted with intimidating behaviour I said No. I was however placed on a full pay suspension that coincides in part with my days off and ask to leave my phone in in case I need to be contacted.
Coley - 17-May-17 @ 3:32 PM
I've been suspended with pay from my workplace for alleged swearing. But the company has no evidence of me swearing, apart from what a customer has said to the store manager. Does the company have the right to sack me??
Spyro92 - 24-Jun-15 @ 8:15 PM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
(never shown)
Enter word: