Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Confronting Vulgarity

Dear Crucial Skills,

We have a set of standards in our company. One of them references how we treat other employees with respect. Recently, I put one of my employees on verbal warning for calling another employee a vulgar name—a clear sign of disrespect.

This was a pretty clear-cut case. But others are more gray. For example, I was bothered when I heard another employee cursing loudly at her computer. She wasn’t saying it to a person, but I still had to overhear it. Am I being prude? This kind of talk offends me—and I’m not sure whether I have a right to ask her to stop.

Just yesterday, an employee referred to her ex-husband in a very vulgar way. Do I ignore it because she is not talking about another employee? Or, do I have a right to ask her not to use that kind of language around me? Please advise.

Deep in the trenches

Dear Deep in the trenches,

You’re clearly facing a crucial confrontation. The first skill for dealing with a crucial confrontation is to decide “What” to confront and “If” you should confront it.

The “what” question is very straightforward. Your organization’s written standards will make it fairly easy to determine whether someone’s use of “directionless vulgarity” (i.e., curses not aimed at another employee) falls inside the description of disrespectful behavior. If it does not, then you will not be confronting a standards violation. This does not mean you have no basis for raising your concerns—it just means you need to be careful to avoid cloaking your personal concerns in policy language.

Too often, people who have personal concerns bridge to company policy when they should not. This undermines your influence and also puts you in a morally contradictory position as you disingenuously cite policy to advance your version of propriety. So, if cursing at a microprocessor is not covered by your standards, just suck it up and admit you have no standards case here but a personal issue. At this point, you may choose to have a crucial confrontation on the personal level, but make sure the other person understands that profanity violates your personal standards, not company policy.

Okay, let’s say you discover that vulgar language is, in fact, declared inappropriate. You have another “what” question to answer before diving into a crucial confrontation. That question is, “Do any of your peers enforce this policy?” If the answer is “No” then you will be on a lonely moral crusade that will likely backfire. If you run off challenging everyone who uses bad language alone, it will appear as though this is just about your own idiosyncrasies rather than a shared definition of respectful behavior.

So, here’s the bottom line on the “What to confront” question: if bad language clearly falls outside of respectful behavior and other supervisors are equally concerned, then confront it respectfully when it occurs. If it is seen as disrespectful but no one else does anything about it, then your first crucial confrontation must be with your peers.

Find an appropriate forum and raise this as a question. Point out the discrepancy between policy and practice and engage your colleagues in a discussion about what they’d like to do. Speak your mind but don’t become self-righteous—if they leave feeling morally beaten into submission, you’ll still stand alone. If it is a candid and open exchange, you can assume that any agreement you reach will be somewhat real—and enforced.

Finally, the “If” question. Let’s say you discover either that the policy does not cover non-directed profanity, or that your peers are unwilling to go to the mat over them. What do you do? You can check with the group.

If you want to raise the issue, it will not be a crucial confrontation—but a crucial conversation. In other words, you will not confront policy violations, but discuss a possible voluntary standard. You can try to gather your own team and attempt to engage them in a discussion about workplace ground rules. See if others would feel more comfortable setting a team ground rule that is voluntarily adhered to regarding language. Be very careful not to guilt trip people into compliance. If there is legitimate desire from others to raise the standard, see if others who are less concerned are willing to support the change. If they are not, then you must adhere to the group’s desires since you have no corporate authority to make your personal values into team standards.

If at the end of this process you find that your personal manners differ from the rest of the group, you’ve got a choice to make. Either get comfortable with allowing others to express themselves more liberally than you do, or move to a place where others’ manners match yours. Do not take the third alternative and place yourself in the role of self-righteous victim. Resentment of this kind is evidence not of integrity but of a sellout.

I hope these ideas help you think through your options and I hope you find your way to positive influence and a comfortable situation.

Best Wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

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