WORKSHOP: Personal Trainer

One of my managers has complained about the swearing of an adjacent team. They are high performers and are angry that they should have to curb their language. What should I do?

Attitudes to swearing are changing. You may recall the lawsuit involving the head of the London office of brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald. It appeared that every other word he used was f***. And it would cert-ainly appear that in some workplaces, f*** is as commonplace as "have a nice day" and probably less offensive.

But we should not just pick on brokers. Last year, a Scotsman had his £100 fine reimbursed by a higher court in a case where he had told two police officers who had detained him to "f*** off". So f*** is the new drat.

People's attitudes to swearing vary considerably. I would make a distinction between conversational swearing and swearing when it is used in an aggressive and offensive way to deliberately cause upset.

Your team appear to be in the "conversational swearing" category. So it is going to be a bit hard to tell people that they cannot swear when every evening we return home and hear it on many television programmes.

Attitudes to swearing have changed. In 1965 when appearing on a late night live satire programme called BBC3, Kenneth Tynan became the first man to say "f***" on TV. A national fit of apoplexy followed with one Tory MP suggesting that he should hang.

You clearly have a member of staff who takes a different attitude to swearing. And that member of staff deserves to have his or her views respected too. So it is a dilemma.

Perhaps it might be worth tackling this in a wider staff meeting or a meeting between members of each team. But it would need to be approached in a non-confrontational way by you. You don't want to be seen taking sides but you do want to ensure effective working across your organisation and personal relationships are a key part of this.

I wonder whether swearing is the only problem here. You say they are a high-performing team and perhaps there are certain antagonisms caused by this. I would certainly recommend taking the two senior managers involved for an informal meeting and talking this through.

Third-sector organisations are diverse in their staff groupings. You will want to ensure an organisational culture that welcomes this diversity and encourages respect for others.

One old idea (and Lent is coming up) is for a "swear box" in the office.

Stephen Bubb is chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO).

Send your questions to: stephen.bubb@haynet.com.

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