Q: I don’t want to be a fuddy-duddy administrator or the language police, but man, this one teacher curses a lot. It’s not mean-spirited or directed at any one particular individual, but it’s way too much. It’s “Oh f*ck, I forgot grades were due,” or “You’re f*cking kidding me, they still haven’t fixed the copy machine?” or “”F*ck that, the county can’t expect us to do anything else,” or her personal favorite, “For f*ck’s sake,” which she uses to preface just about anything. She uses other swear words, too, but the F word is her personal favorite. I’m an assistant administrator, and she runs a department that I supervise, so if anyone is going to address this, it’s probably going to be me. I want her to stop cursing before a parent or a student overhears her. And yes, there’s an element of self-preservation at play — I feel like this reflects on me, and it’s embarrassing. I was raised to see swearing as low-brow, evidence of a limited vocabulary. I’ve tried jokingly telling her she’s over the top, but I’ve gotten nowhere. How can I get her to quit doing this without coming off as a total square?
A: For starters, you need to stop worrying about coming off as a square. This has nothing to do with you personally and everything to do with your role. Your job is to supervise this department chair, and profanity is unprofessional. It’s particularly inappropriate for the school setting. The teacher could even open your school to a lawsuit if another employee feels targeted because of their gender, race, religion, or age. While some people are unbothered by expletives, others find cursing objectionable regardless of context. There’s so much subjectivity when it comes to language, so why leave anything to chance? You’re not just weighing her right to swear against the potential for embarrassment; you’re looking out for your other staff members. Of course, you don’t want her cursing in front of students or parents, either.
The next time she uses the F word, tell her directly that she can’t use that language. By using a joking tone, you’ve been sending a mixed message. So adopt a serious expression and tone, and explain that cursing reflects poorly on her and on the school. Note that she runs the risk of being overheard by parents and students, and that she could even open herself up to liability. She may not have considered that for some, profanity is deeply offensive. As a role model for both the teachers in her department and her students, she should be using polite language at work. She also may be violating the employee code of conduct. Make sure she’s aware of any rules regarding language. If your school has no policy in place, you might want to consider updating your handbook.
I’d point out that she can talk however she wants at home, and I’d acknowledge that cursing can become a hard-to-break habit. Tell her you know she’ll have the occasional slip-up, but that profanity can’t be her default. Then ask her how you can help her stay on track. Would she like you to address it in the moment? Use a secret signal? Keep a log? If this has been going on for a long time, I’d be authentic. Tell her you know you should have said something sooner, but that you felt self-conscious calling her out for bad language. If you feel hesitant about having this conversation at all, remind yourself that you’re doing her no favors by staying silent. If you don’t speak up, she could end up hearing from a disgruntled parent, the principal, or someone in human resources. So be transparent and communicate openly. Everyone will benefit.
For more Career Confidential: http://bit.ly/2C1WQmw
Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.