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Is It Free Speech or Is It Abuse?

March 29, 1998

Glendale city Finance Director Brian Butler was put on paid administrative leave in January after three unidentified city employees complained that, among other things, he used profanity in the workplace.

A number of employees showed their support for Butler by signing a letter sent to the City Council. Butler, who has headed the office since 1983, has committed no crime, violated no written code of conduct and has never been charged with financial improprieties.

The city's Civil Service Commission will determine whether swearing on the job is deserving of disciplinary action or firing. KARIMA A. HAYNES asked a speech communication professor, etiquette consultant and a restaurant and nightclub owner to comment on the use of off-color language in the workplace.

MARIAN FIFI LOCKE

Etiquette consultant, Van Nuys

There are guidelines for business ethics and business etiquette that range from answering the telephone to returning phone calls to conducting personal business at the office. There are certain things that you just don't do, like swearing, telling racial jokes or making romantic overtures to office colleagues.

Swearing not only violates proper business etiquette, but it is insulting and degrading. Most of all, a person who swears has to be unintelligent as far as mastering the English language. For every swear word, there can be another word to replace that word. Instead of saying, "Oh no, I made a mistake," they use a curse word.

Swearing is . . . a moral issue. If a person grows up in a house where his parents scream and swear at each other, it is something he will carry on into adulthood. We know it's wrong, but it is tolerated.

PAUL KRIVONOS

Professor and chairman, Department of Speech Communication, Cal State Northridge.

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We need to be aware of how our message is being delivered and how our audience is going to react and respond to it. We have a tendency to focus on the language people use, rather than the content of their message. The speaker needs to know what effect his or her language is going to have on the audience. This is not a matter of trying to be politically correct but rather wanting to make sure you get the message across.

The more conservative the organization, the less likely swearing is going to be tolerated. Especially in work settings such as a bank, where the external public is a constant presence, I suspect people are going to be turned off by swearing.

In another setting, where the culture is younger and more casual, swearing is likely to be more acceptable.

Sometimes swearing is a way to get your audience on your side: "We thought he was some uppity professor, but he's one of us." In other situations, swearing could be a form of release, a way to express feelings of anger, sadness and frustration.

I think swearing, salty language or anything else that could be considered demeaning or put others on the defensive are probably things we want to avoid in the workplace.

DANNY GEORGES

Owner and manager, Middle Eastern Connection restaurant and nightclub, Burbank

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I don't agree that employees should swear. It's not professional. You could offend the customer because not everyone swears. Just because you own a restaurant and nightclub doesn't mean you don't get quality clientele.

A few days ago, some employees were talking and swearing. It was a little too loud and I thought the customers could hear them. I told them not to pull that stunt again. If they had kept on swearing, I wouldn't have wanted them working here any more. After a couple of warnings, it would be, "Thank you for your services."

Patrons are different. They are paying customers and they can do what they want. [Still] people become different when they drink. Even a person who never swears, when they drink, it comes up. I try to walk them outside and talk to them. Once they are outside, I tell them, "The bill is on me. I got it." If they don't leave, that's when Burbank police have to come.

Even as a trash person you shouldn't swear. If my daughter and wife are outside when you come by to pick up the trash, I don't want them to hear you swear. I am paying taxes that pay your salary.

We all work for somebody; nobody is their own boss.

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