Is the Use of Profanity in the Workplace Grounds for Termination?

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Cussing could get you fired, so watch your mouth.
Cussing could get you fired, so watch your mouth. (Image: Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images)

Some people sprinkle profane words into their speech like others sprinkle salt onto food. Unfortunately, while profanity may be allowable in other facets of life, it’s typically seriously frowned upon in the workplace. Whether the use of profanity at work is grounds for termination depends on the individual workplace.

Speech Policies

Companies that formally and expressly prohibit the use of profanity at work give themselves the most latitude for terminating employees who use profane language. Such policies should state whether termination can occur after a first violation. If the policy allows for remediation of the behavior, it should also state what remediation will consist of, what sanctions employees may face and after how many instances of profane language use they can be terminated. If companies fire employees over the use of profanity in accordance with their own policies, then they are within their right to do so.

General Conduct Policies

Having a speech policy that covers the use of profanity can help companies protect themselves if employees who are terminated sue. However, more general conduct policies that don’t expressly forbid profanity also allow companies the ground to fire employees who speak profanely. Some companies require employees to maintain a respectful attitude (or something similarly worded). Because most reasonable people would not consider profanity to be respectful, companies with such policies have a legal basis for terminating employees who speak profanely in accordance with their general conduct policies. If profanity creates a hostile environment for other employees, companies may invoke general conduct policies as well to terminate the potty-mouthed employee.

Invoking Insubordination

Companies can and do routinely fire employees for insubordination. Insubordination is a term that covers a wide range of conduct. However, it generally refers to any employee conduct that is in direct violation of an order given to him by a supervisor. That means that if a supervisor expressly advises an employee that profane language is not to be used and the employee engages in profane speech, he has committed insubordination. As such, he may face termination.

Wrongful Discharge

If an employee routinely engages in the use of profane language and has never been reprimanded for it, he may have grounds for a wrongful discharge case against his former employer if the company doesn’t have a policy that covers this kind of conduct and if he has never been told that the profanity must stop. But the employee must have been working at the company for some time, using profane language all along, to prove that his profane speech was just a pretext for his termination. After all, if the behavior was going on all along and it was tolerated, then it would make no sense to a judge hearing the case that all of a sudden it became a reason for firing the employee. On the other hand, if the employee is an at-will employee, then he may be terminated at any time and for any reason.

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