Is swearing in the workplace legal?

February 18th, 2022

While there is no general legal principle that the use of swearing by employees is an act of gross misconduct that would justify instant dismissal, there are certain circumstances where the use of foul and abusive language in the workplace could lead to legal action.

Swearing in the workplace can be commonplace between employees in certain environments such as workshops and factory floors, and wouldn’t necessarily lead to legal proceedings. However, the use of foul and abusive language in other workplaces can result in the dismissal of employees and leave employers open to Employment Tribunals being brought against them.

Can an employer or supervisor swear at an employee?

If foul and abusive language is used by an employer or a senior employee in a supervisory position, this can expose the employer to claims for constructive dismissal or discrimination.

There have been a number of circumstances where the Courts have emphasised that employers or supervisors who swear at employees do so at their own peril. Some well-known cases include:

  • A director who said of his secretary that she was an “intolerable bitch on a Monday morning” was held to have constructively dismissed her.
  • Cantor Fitzgerald International failed in an argument that the fact that it paid high salaries to employees in the City of London could justify the use of swearing and obscenities. The Court also held in that the fact the employee himself had used foul language in the past in another context did not deprive him of the right to claim he had been constructively dismissed.
  • When St Helens Rugby League Head Coach Ian Millward was sacked in May 2005, the employment law consequences of swearing were brought to the fore. Millward was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct after being removed for verbally abusing a press officer and media officer.

Consequences of employees swearing at employers

When an employee uses foul and abusive language in the workplace against his boss, particularly in circumstances where an employee is refusing to carry out a reasonable order, this has been held to justify instant dismissal.

Similarly, when an employee swears in order to intimidate or humiliate a more junior employee, this is likely to expose an employer to a claim in the Employment Tribunal and can also justify the instant dismissal of the employee who used such language.

There has been one case, however, where an Employment Tribunal held that where an employee used abusive language in a sudden explosion of temper and under the influence of drink, it was unfair to dismiss that employee without first giving him the opportunity to apologise.

Workplace policies to protect employees and employers

We recommend that employers implement appropriate bullying and harassment policies, where the boundaries and management of workplace behaviour are carefully defined. With the correct policies in place, people can fully understand what is prohibited in the workplace and the consequences of going against rules and regulations.

Through taking an appropriate stance on swearing in the workplace, employers can prevent unwanted workplace behaviour and also protect their business from possible Employment Tribunals.

For more information

For further information on swearing in the workplace or if you have a query about the use of foul and abusive language by an employee or employer, contact Verisona Law on call us on 023 9298 1000 for honest and impartial legal advice from our team. Alternatively, fill out the form below and a member of the team will be in touch.