Category Archives: Bullying in the workplace

Do redheads need to be a protected minority?

Red heads the last unprotected minority?

Redheads the last unprotected minority?

I was born with light red hair. Back in the day it was called strawberry blonde   which I never really understood, because strawberries are actually really red!  Sometimes and more ostentatiously I was a Titian blonde, but apart from the odd building site worker yelling “Hey ginge”  from time to time,  I was never subjected to any sort of name calling, teasing or harassment. In fact it was generally a source of affectionate banter.

Like all the old wives tales associated with this colouring,  I am inclined to be a little hot-headed, I bleed profusely when cut and I am easily anesthetized. I break away from the curve as I have fewer freckles (angel’s kisses) than most redheads.  Should I decide to grill myself like a vegetable on the beach, I could sport a sun tan –  if I wanted one.  I am a higher risk for skin cancer,  so always wear a hat and factor 50 sunscreen. Over the years like most with my colouring,  I haven’t gone grey, merely faded to a sort of sandy blonde,  counteracted with some assistance from my dear friend L’Oreal. To the best of my knowledge I have never turned into a vampire.

So I was surprised to learn that there is a growing move for redheads to become a  “protected minority” as a result of the increased incidence of bullying and discrimination.  This is not only in schools where only the quickest search will reveal horrendous incidents reported, but also  a comparable growth in workplace bullying, ranging from corporate settings to the NYPD.  I also found a plethora of web sites set up exclusively to report  such incidents and to offer support to this minority.

The ginger gene

In 1995, Professor Jonathan Reese discovered that mutations of the gene      MC1R on chromosome 16 were responsible for red hair (known as the “ginger      gene”). The gene mutation responsible for red hair in humans probably arose 20,000-40,000 years ago.  It occurs naturally on approximately 1–2% of the human population more frequently (2–6%) in people of northern or western European ancestry, and less frequently in other populations.

As with any minority, throughout history  reactions have varied from admiration, suspicion to ridicule.  Redheads were burnt at the stake in medieval England as witches. Aristotle was said to have called them ” emotionally un- house broken” although that has never been substantiated. Across the globe, proverbs and warnings are centred around the negative aspects of unfortunate encounters with persons of red hair colouring.

Unprotected minority

But why in this day and age this sort of prejudice exists is a mystery.  One explanation offered by a social historian contact, is that with all other sorts of blatant discrimination now outlawed  or considered politically incorrect, (colour, gender, physiology,  sexual, nationality) the bullies amongst us have been left with few targets for their vicious invective.  Are redheads therefore becoming one of the last unprotected minorities?

Let’s find out!

Joel, 29, works in Sales Accounts for a U.K. based insurance company.  He has very short hair which he keeps in a number 5 buzz cut. To  you and me this is street speak for extremely short hair, but  I suppose on trend with today’s fashion. It doesn’t seem out-of-place in the centre of  business London.   Joel’s hair colour is naturally what you and I would call chestnut, a rich brown. But when the sun shines on it some copper tints and glints are visible. Don’t people pay fortunes to have such highlights put into their hair I mused?  Not Joel. He cuts his hair every two weeks. Why? “To avoid teasing and bullying. I got sick of the comments. I also worried that my hair colour would be an issue for promotion

I should add that Joel is over six-foot and a rugby player, built like a tank,  so unlikely to be physically abused, but clearly took to heart the verbal jibes.  This is in stark contrast to Alex Kosuth-Phillips who was attacked  and his jaw broken in Birmingham, U.K. simply because of the colour of his hair

However  this is not a British phenomenon,  although with the nature of the gene it is more likely to be found in certain ethnic groups and therefore geographies.  Incidents are widely reported in Canada, Ireland, Australia and anywhere Northern Europeans are based or have migrated to.  It is almost impossible to believe that the U.S. has a “Kick a Ginger Day” a follow-up from the T.V. show South Park.    Marilyn, a Washington based lawyer with Irish heritage,  spends over $100 every month colouring her naturally red locks, brunette. “This is not because of  anything that has happened in the workplace, but because of the trauma of growing up with red hair and the scars it has left from bullying in school.” 

On a more positive note according to a Clairol Color Attitude survey, with 71 percent of redheads saying they feel the word “bold” describes them — 24 points ahead of blondes; 80 percent say they are self-confident — 25 points ahead of blondes. We also have a head start in the health stakes survival game surviving many debilitating illnesses it would seem at a better rate!  Gentlemen may prefer blondes,  but redheads have more sex, or at least they do in Germany.  Some of the most prominent  literary figures and leaders in history from Mark Twain,  Cleopatra, Cromwell, Vivaldi, Van Gogh  and George Washington were all redheads.

So should redheads be placed in a protected category or should they dare to be different? What do you think?

Mobbing in the workplace


Bullying, psychological terror or aggression, hostile workplace behavior, workplace trauma, incivility, emotional violence resulting in emotional injury affecting the target’s mental and physical health.

Mobbing is an English word, but one I first came across being used by non Anglophones to describe the subtle difference between covert emotional abuse in the work place by a group,  from more overt and recognisable bullying,  which can be carried out by individuals.

Mobbing is  emotional abuse by stealth in an organisation. It manifests itself as “ganging up” by co-workers, superiors or subordinates to force someone out of the workplace through rumour, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, isolation,  undermining and discrediting. The result will be a negative impact on the target’s emotional, psychological and physical well-being.     It is generally malicious non-sexual, non racial general harassment.

Mobbing  is not an isolated incident or the type conflict or disagreement that often arises in offices which can be moderated. It is not always highly visible although rudeness and shouting can be components.    Mobbing is a sustained war of attrition on the target,  with  focus on a specific vulnerability to generate malaise and conflict.  It can be employer on employee, coworker on coworker and even subordinate on superior abuse.

Ringer leader

The mob usually has a ringleader who drives the bullying “programme.”  Leaders can be both extroverted and introverted,  with the latter considered  more dangerous, as  their  actions are under-cover.  Sometimes while appearing  to be publicly agreeable, they direct others from behind the scenes to perpetrate the “mobbing ”  on their behalf.

There are a number of reasons why a person instigates mobbing.  It is always associated with their own feelings of insecurity. They might feel threatened by the skills, success, popularity, age or even the appearance of the target. There maybe a  Machiavellian component of power seeking.  Sometimes more complex clinically identifiable personality disorders are involved.

Bystander syndrome

Ringleaders  engage, manipulate  or recruit the rest of the mob to support or carry out mobbing activities.   These can range from passing on and carrying out instructions to colleagues or reports,  or circulating vicious rumours or gossip to undermine the target.   If the ring leader is senior,  the authority is legitimized.  The recruits comply because they fear becoming a target themselves  or they simply get a kick out of seeing other people suffer.  Others are more passive bystanders who  enable the mobbing situation,  by  failing to take action against it, thus becoming complicit and endorsing it.

One case study

Gabriella  works in a small NGO in Brussels.  Multi lingual and highly qualified, with post-graduate certification in her speciality,  she has  as 20 years’  experience running complex international research assignments and teams. In the two years she has been in her position she has become increasingly isolated in her office,  with only one of her co-workers willing to talk to her on a daily basis.  The office intern has been instructed not to  respond to her instructions.  Every aspect of her work is micro-managed  and  despite the size of the office,  all communication is via email ,  very often aggressive in tone.

The departmental head has downgraded the content of her role and using the office manager as an interlocutor she has been given a series of projects normally associated with entry leve skills.   During a client presentation Gabriella  was stopped mid-way and replaced  in front of the audience by a  junior team member who was not familiar with the content.   She has been sent to cover conferences not relevant to the activities of the organization and requested to produce lengthy reports to tight deadlines.  These reports to date have not been read.

She has no job description or objectives and her requests to discuss the situation  and establish her goals with the office manager and senior  manager have been ignored. Gabriella’s queries on what has been going on have been labelled as a disruptive refusal to co-operate.

This  is “mobbing”.

Diagnosed with depression, Gabriella went on sick leave today. Should her next step be a lawyer? Can she even prove what has happened?

What do you think?  If you have any similar experiences  please share them.

The dark side of humour

Humour in the Workplace

The right to be offensive

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire

I found myself the other evening at the heart of a heated dinner debate and somewhat surprisingly not in the majority camp either. The issue: the right to be humorous, even if it causes offence and what this means for the undermining of freedom of speech by overly political correctness. Should we be able to say what we like when if it’s supposed to be funny? It was a long dinner!

The discussion started around a remark made by a British comedian, Frankie Boyle, who made what he believed presumably to be a joke about a disabled boy. There was some negative media commentary afterwards and the mother, a minor and truthfully publicity seeking, headline grabbing, British celebrity, thereafter made a documentary about handicapped children.

Orwellian Newspeak
Humour in any organisation is a vital ingredient to creating a successful working atmosphere, so I am not suggesting a move towards the 1984 diminishing vocabulary of ‘Newspeak’, the politically correct language in Orwell’s famous dystopia. But stereotypes and prejudice do die hard. If we create a comedic culture where it is acceptable to use “jokes” about vulnerable people, then for me this marks the crossing of a very distinct line and sets the scene for the validation of copy cat behaviour.

There is no doubt that different groups have been singled out and targeted over history in jokes by more powerful and dominant sectors of our society, based on: gender, race, religion, physiology, nationality to name but a few. I understand that eliminating this type of behaviour in our media is not necessarily going to eradicate it from our societies. A culture of formal disapproval has been created around certain “isms” ( e.g. racism, sexism, anti- Semitism) which are now illegal, which we saw with John Galliano and his anti-Semitic rant earlier this year, or Mel Gibson’s racist tirade.

It’s hardly surprising that if in our wider cultures, offensive humour goes unchecked, that it sets the tone in our workplaces, when disrespectful comments, cloaked as jokes are on the increase, along with other forms of verbal abuse. We tend to think of this behaviour as shouting and /or profanity, but it also comes in more subtle, lower key, but equally damaging forms. Humour is one of them. According to U.S. Legal Definitions site, the definition is: “Verbal abuse is the use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to. It is difficult to define and may take many forms. Similarly, the harm caused is often difficult to measure. The most commonly understood form is name-calling. Verbal abuse may consist of shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, or derogatory language, among other forms of communication.”

Ill disguised malice
Humour (the quality of being amusing) can very often simply be ill disguised malice. I coached an entry-level employee recently whose boss referred to him within the department as his ” monkey”. Another contact left a job because of the constant jokes made about her figure. Another changed organisations because of incessant teasing about his red hair, which he now colours blond to avoid the jokes and name calling. (A teacher friend subsequently mentioned that red heads are considered a number one bullying target in schools). I have coached clients who have been the butt of jokes about their regional accents, clothes, hobbies and vision (or lack thereof.)

Much of this behaviour if allowed to continue in a working environment, can be profoundly damaging and develop into a form of bullying, which should be dealt with as such. It is of course difficult to measure and very subjective. What can be offensive to one person, may be glossed over and considered hilariously funny by another. How do we benchmark sensitivity? But disrespectful behaviour has been identified as costing as much as $300 billion

Political correctness
This is not to suggest that communication and language be sanitized to a monotonous neutrality, where fun is taken out of the workplace. Nor should we live in constant fear of offending people and getting caught up in the complex maze of political correctness, where we can no longer call a man with no hair, bald , or the use of the word manhole, rather than maintenance portal, comes with a reprimand. Hailing from the North of England my directness has not gone unnoticed, even when I believe I am exercising great restraint! I suspect would find myself in even more trouble.

I rejoice in the fact that I live in countries where freedom of speech is embraced. But neither am I convinced that ” A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.” Napoleon I.

It is also about how we say things.

Moving on from bullying: leave a legacy

This post was orignally a guest post for Ann Lewis author of “Recover your balance: How to bounce back from bad times at work”

Take a stand
In my research for my series on the bullying of women in the work place by women, I was contacted by a huge number of women and somewhat surprisingly men too. Most of this communication was private.

Two messages
This sent me two messages: the first was that bullying is still a shame based experience leaving many unable to openly admit that it had happened. The other was that individuals who had been targets, even years later, went to considerable lengths not only to protect the identity of the perpetrators, but also the organisations where they worked. In many cases little or nothing had been done to support them. In essence, the bullied had become part of an enabling process which allowed repeat offenders to continue abusive behaviour.

Could I say they these victims had moved on?
No, not really. Many had simply resigned and left organisational life to become corporate refugees by working freelance or starting their own business. Some went onto be bullied in subsequent jobs. Others had abandoned their careers totally. Most were scarred, still bewildered and angry. Many had had such horrific experiences, which in my naivety I had previously only associated with movie story lines.

Premeditated sabotage strategies aside, on a daily basis many accused bullies (especially women) have no idea that their behaviour is perceived as « bullying « and are quite shocked or even distressed when finally challenged. So it seems that the bullying process can be viewed as a breakdown, or absence of, constructive communication, with each party needing to assume responsibility for their own role in the dysfunctional dynamic.

Tri-partite responsibility
• The responsibility of the “ target” is to communicate his/her perception of the situation and follow through as required . Failure to do this can mean staying stuck in a negative position, which is tantamount to handing over personal power to both the bully and the organisation.
• The responsibility of the bully is to change his/her behaviour and communication style to acceptable norms.
• The responsibility of the organisation is to ensure that it is carried out.

What would I suggest to anyone who feels that they are being bullied?

• Research corporate and sector guidelines. Most countries have no legislation to deal with bullying, although that is changing. Benchmark your experience against those checklists.
• Seek professional help early in the process. This is good investment. You are experiencing a trauma! If you were suffering a wound to your leg, would you try and treat it yourself? No! You’d see a doctor!
• Work on strategies to self advocate and heal. Focus on becoming “unstuck” and taking responsibility for retreiving your own position .
• In tandem set up an audit trail of abusive treatment. Document and note each incident. This will be useful in any internal inquires or even eventual legal action.
• Find a mentor. Someone who can support and validate you professionally.

Strategic challenge
Walking away from a bad experience maybe sufficient for some to heal and I agree that in a number of instances, “letting go” will do it. However, the individuals who seemed be in the best place, were the very few who had found the courage to challenge the bully in a constructive and strategic way, as well as tenaciously dealing with the organisations where the bullying had occurred, even to the point of legal action.

Cultural contribution
This is not about revenge, although I’m sure for some individuals that might play a satisfying part. Stepping up in this way is also about contributing to the cultural change of what is acceptable workplace behaviour. It will raise public awareness to prevent the same thing happening to others. This transparency also obliges organisations to enforce (rather than pay lip service to) workplace protocols instead of intervening only when the bottom line is negatively impacted. Think of the significant advances that have happened over the last 40 years in the areas of discrimination against women, minorities or the physically impaired. This has been the cumulative result of individual as well as group action.

So somehow, and easier said than done I know, the targets of bullying need to dig deep to find the courage to step up and take a stand, not just for their own recovery, but for the protection of our future working environments. To quote Martin Luther King “Justice denied anywhere, diminishes justice everywhere

That is when personal moving on also leaves a legacy.

What do you think?

Whatever happened to Jane?

One story on women and workplace bullying

A few months ago I wrote about a client who I called Jane. She sparked my interest in bullying in the work place of women by women. It was enlightening and eye-opening. I shared my discovery experience of the whole process via a series of posts, which hopefully you are familiar with. I examined the reasons why women bully, the methods they use, the differences compared to male bullying, how organisations deal with this phenomenon and finally what victims can do to deal with it.

However, in the intervening months many of you have been repeatedly asking “Whatever happened to Jane?” Jane, you will be pleased to hear, has quietly but effectively been doing what she felt she needed to do and asked me to wait before I shared her experiences until after she had completed her own healing process. She is now in a place where she is looking forward and has given me permission to share her story.


One of the first things I did as a coach was to research bullying, establish what it is and to decide if I felt there was a real issue of abuse in Jane’s case. I’m the eldest of 4, with an authoritarian father and my early career was spent in the steel industry, so personally, I have a reasonably high resistance to intimidating behaviour, so I have to factor that in. But after researching, there was no question in my mind – Jane was being systematically bullied and ground down. What was additionally painful for her was that her husband felt she needed to toughen up and assert herself which added to her feelings of isolation. Here is a re-cap of her story. She was:

– singled out for public criticism about her work and appearance
– regularly called into her bosses office at 17.20 to be given additional work with tight deadlines
– excluded from email circulation lists and meetings
– only person in the department not invited to a social event at bosses house
– attempts to discuss had been dismissed with contempt
– The HR department would only get involved if a formal complaint was made

Benchmark the case

Jane’s first task was to carry out a health check on her own job performance. In the absence of official feedback, she felt satisfied that her own performance met expectation ( surpassed it even). She noted all her major achievements during the previous 12 months and produced a list of metrics to support the contribution she had made to her department. Her second assignment was to make her own research project on general guidelines on bullying within her company and sector and to establish where she felt her own treatment lay on that spectrum. She produced concrete evidence which indicated fairly strongly that sector and workplace guidelines and recommendations were being contravened. This not only helped her trust her own instincts again, but also allowed her talk to her husband in a factual and neutral way about her own position. In her case, getting genuine support from him and dealing with the personal relationship issues which had arisen because of this bullying, was as significant as confronting the situation in the workplace.

Keeping a log

She went back and tracked all the instances where she had felt bullied and began keeping a log of each new incident. She asked precise and specific questions relating to feedback on all the issues for which she had been publicly criticised, notably her appearance and work performance. Her emails received no response but the public criticism stopped as did private negative comments. In fact she was given no feedback at all. In just a year under her new manager, she received no formal professional goals or performance review, despite numerous requests.

She also carried out an audit of the emails where she had been omitted from the distribution list and made a list of the meetings from which she had been excluded. She let all her superiors in the hierarchy know that this was happening. She kept a tracking record of the times she was asked to work late and made suggestions for improving workplace through put. Those requests also stopped.


I would love to say that Jane went on to talk constructively to her boss about her struggles with her managerial style, air kisses were exchanged, hands shaken and their difficulties eventually resolved as it might in a movie. But this is her story and that didn’t happen. She had lost all respect for her boss and just wanted to put the whole experience behind her. We had also worked simultaneously on job search strategies and at the end of June, Jane was approached by another organisation and has subsequently accepted their offer.

Happy ending

In her carefully crafted and fully annotated resignation letter and later in an exit interview with HR, Jane stated clearly that bullying was the reason for her leaving. This complaint was not processed previously because it had not been formally introduced. Her manager is now being investigated internally, although Jane, somewhat cynically, doesn’t think anything will come of it as the department produces excellent results. “She’s tough but she gets things done” is the comment made of her boss. She did hear from an ex-colleague that there was talk of introducing an intermediary ( buffer) layer reporting into the departmental head, but so far that has not been made official. Perhaps creating a promotion opportunity was Jane’s legacy!

Jane consulted a lawyer regarding suing for constructive dismissal ( that is being forced to resign). Her lawyer was doubtful about her chances of winning, although she felt she had a “reasonable” case given Jane’s excellent record keeping. Apparently it would have been stronger if Jane had been physically assaulted or yelled at publically. So interestingly, one moment of extreme physical abuse (male style) carries more legal weight than a year of covert intimidation (female style). Stealth bullying by women is very hard to audit and to prove. Additionally, her company is a global household name and the process could have taken years.

However, she was given the option of gardening leave during her notice period because of “untenable circumstances”. Combined with her annual vacation entitlement and an unpaid “gap period”, she is touring in Asia as we speak with her husband. She starts her new job in November.

Her final words are ” It will never happen again”.

That’s her happy ending.

A case for gender related management training

Mars and Venus


This post was originally written as a guest post for Tanveer Naseer, a business coach who works with small businesses and entrepreneurs to develop new strategies for growth and development

Let’s stop being trapped by political correctness. Do men and women need different types of management training? I think so

A number of spin off issues came from my recent research on bullying by women in the workpalce – but several were particularly interesting.

Workplace Mars and Venus
One of them was that both men and women alike, shared the need for management and organisational training with a specifically gender related thread. A sort of Mars / Venus for work place skills. This wasn’t specifically just about sexual harassment, but basic communication,conflict resolution and managing expectations. This flies in the face of the common corporate gender-neutral, one-size-fits all management training, that exists in most organisations today.

Many would view this as a backward step. But is it really?

Jane Gunn, The Corporate Peacemaker author of the book “How to Beat Bedlam in the Boardroom And Boredom in the Bedroom suggests that “ difference is the starting point for adding or creating value. What is needed most is to understand the value that each gender brings to the workplace and how each gender can learn from, rather than feel threatened by, the other”.

Differences are not negative. They’re just different.
Shouldn’t we just be acknowledging the existence of gender differences and recognise that we all need training on how to deal with them, rather than assuming as we do now, that we can all slip into business (gender) neutral on our own.

Or worse, assume that the traditional training methods found most successfully in male dominated environments work one hundred percent across the board, when all evidence indicates to the contrary. This is amusingly and somewhat extremely illustrated by a bemused Professor Higgins in the song , A Hymn to Him, when gender differences were clearly not perceived as positive!

Historical perspective
It would seem from the people who contacted me at least, that there are indeed issues in all gender combinations in the work place, except almost predictably, in male dominated environments ( men managing and being managed by men). This actually shouldn’t surprise me. Men have had centuries of experience. Outside a domestic situation, all male teams and organisations were historically and culturally the norm : military, sports, male clubs, politics etc, where clearly defined structured hierarchies were in place and communication lines were usually prescribed and evident.

In a historical perspective, it was only comparatively recently that women have either been included or allowed full access to most business environments. So it’s hardly surprising that no one is used to dealing with women in these situations. And as they join the corporate world in ever increasing numbers, equally women are not used to dealing with each other either! There simply is very little historical precedent to call upon. In brief, men and women lack practise in dealing with each other at work which is intensified as women climb the career ladder and assume positions of responsibility .

Blurred expectations
So when I think about it, it’s almost to be expected that there should be some blurring of both expectations and behaviour within organisations. Perhaps the real surprise should be that any of it comes right at all, given this real lack of experience in the overall scheme of things.

Both men and women enter the workplace with their academic and professional qualifications and experience, but also with engrained behaviour patterns and expectations derived from their separate chromosomes, personality types and relationship role models developed in lives and interaction outside a work situation.

Many women claimed that men needed special training relating to them in a business neutral way, believing that men are used to dealing with women as mothers, sisters, partners, daughters and less often as business peers and even less frequently as superiors. But conversely the same was said by the men about women! Jane Gunn also amplifies “Almost every instance of conflict or dispute at work is the catalyst for, or is mirrored by, conflict at home. In the same way relationships at home have a dramatic impact on our ability to create a productive and harmonious work life.”

Real issues
The real issue is perhaps how do we all let go our socialized gender stereotypical behaviour and communicate in a business neutral way when we enter organisational life, when they can be so removed for many from the roles we play in other areas of our daily lives? The answer seems to be with difficulty. Every indication would also suggest that support in coping with this dichotomy would be useful. But recognising differences doesn’t mean unequal treatment as it once did.

Other differences
Much is written about dealing with other types of differences in an organisational setting: cross cultural, personality ( extrovert vs introvert) high achievers for example. So why is it now de rigeur, or worse still, politically incorrect, to acknowledge that gender differences require special attention in an organisational context?

Ashanti A, Change Manager in the Hi-Tech sector in Los Angeles, shared this ” As a female manager the biggest challenge in managing men is gaining the same respect and willingness to be a direct report that would be given to a male manager. As basic as it sounds- by nature no man wants to be told what to do by a woman ”

Ashanti also suggests that women need to be mindful not to fall into the “subordinate female co- worker role”. So women instinctively pour coffee, arrange parties, bring cakes and act as the “carer / facilitator/plactor” Ashanti elaborates. “Oftentimes because these statements aren’t aggressive or sexual in nature, they’re not deemed offensive or inappropriate- yet I would argue the latter

For me,as women enter organisational life in greater numbers than ever before, there is a clear need for a reveiw of current training practises.

What do you think?
Selected by Wally Bock for Top Independent Business Blogs ” Dorothy Dalton is one of the best writers on the web when it comes to raising and analyzing gender issues in the workplace. Don’t read this post to find an answer. Read it to gather ideas for the answer you will develop for yourself“.

Cleaning up workplace language

The impact of swearing on the %!@x* job!

I am no stranger to the odd expletive. I was recently defrauded by a client and I have to confess that my vocabulary was related to the legitimacy of his parentage, rather than “dash and oh dear”. Generally bad language is not an integral part of my descriptive daily vocabulary, although it would seem, if the media are anything go by, it’s on the increase everywhere, even in the workplace.

But what is the impact of that trend?

Cultural shifts
All languages have swear words, many of which are as old as the languages themselves. Their evolution is cyclical and words which were previously considered acceptable, are now perceived as pejorative. And vice versa. In western society swearing has previously been associated more with men than women.When I first started working in the steel industry, men complained about women being in meetings because it would mean restricting their language. It was considered inappropriate to swear in mixed company and if that happened it was quickly followed by an apology. Women who swore have always been viewed more harshly than men, simply because they were perceived to have violated more societal taboos which proved to be a deterrent, at least publically.

However, times seem to be a-changing. Bad language is moving away from building sites and fish markets to professional arenas and used by more women. Laura a lawyer in an international law firm confirms that view “ A number of things are going on. Words that were at one time considered to be strong swear words, no longer carry the same taboo as they used to. The “F -word ” is now used quite routinely in my office. It’s common place at a senior level and used in front of and by women. It is no longer considered shocking for a woman to swear” Whether it’s because they are enjoying freedom of expression, venting , asserting themselves, mimicking male behaviour or the growth of a “laddette” culture she was unable to say.

Mini poll
I did a straw, mixed gender and generation poll amongst a group of friends and associates and this was the general feeling. Light social swearing in many contexts is now very normal practise and considered acceptable in the workplace by both men and women alike, but accompanied by some strong unwritten protocols.

These were closely related to the relationships of the people involved and the situation or environment. They also identified a hierarchy of swear words ranging from mildly profane to vulgar and abusive at the other end of the spectrum. It was the final category which my mini poll felt crossed the line into dangerous territory, with the women reacting more strongly than men to specific words. It was interesting that the younger members of my poll of both sexes had a more tolerant attitude than the older members.

Positive impact
However , some studies suggest that swearing at work is not always abusive and can actually have a positive effect helping employees cope with stress, facilitating camaraderie and effective team building. The study into leadership styles, carried out by academics Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins at the University of East Anglia, warned that attempts to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact, although their case studies related primarily to men.

Decline in civility
But there is also a very strong concern that an increased tolerance of swearing in organisations is becoming part of a general decline in workplace communication.  This behaviour and can even contribute to bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Susan in her mid 30s, with a cross generational perspective works in an investment company where 80% of the department is female, considered both points “My female boss and colleagues are just as likely to swear as the guys and do so frequently! The number of no-go areas particularly amongst younger employees are much fewer than previously. Women feel they can now freely express themselves in the way that men do, but although no one feels harassed or discriminated against, oftentimes it creates an impression of a lack of basic respect which permeates through the department leading to ill feeling and stress.”

So I asked, while I tried to figure out that double standard, can I conclude that although women swear more than before, they don’t actually like being sworn at? “Yes, that’s pretty much my observation. They don’t shrug it off like men do. It’s still not an integral part of our female culture as it is with men, so in certain circumstances it goes down badly and is considered offensive and upsetting.” Susan responded.

Ava Diamond drew my attention to The Cost of Bad Behavior by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, where they suggest that the lack of civility in the workplace, it is far more widespread than people realize and is having a profound negative economic effect to the tune of $300 billion.

With an increased incidence of women openly swearing, and the taboo of men swearing around women disappearing, to what extent does this increased tolerance of bad language contribute to the existence of stressful and hostile working environments? The CIPD suggests “Employers can ensure professional language in the workplace by having a well drafted policy on bullying and harassment that emphasises how bad language can potentially amount to harassment or bullying.”

But will a workplace handbook be enough? This culture comes from the top. With swearing becoming more socially acceptable across the board in both men and women, how do senior managers define limits, especially in culturally diverse organisations? Or is setting a zero-tolerance policy the only workable solution?

Part of it comes by leading by example from senior men and women alike.

What do you think?