Is it Ever OK to Swear in Business?

I’m pretty sure my Brooklyn upbringing is responsible for my perpetual potty mouth.  I realized it was a problem the day my friend Glenn’s mother kicked me out of her house for swearing when I was 10 years old.   My family is used to it by now (not proud of this) and my colleagues are soundly familiar with it.  However, as comfortable as I am with salty language, I have not encountered much of it in large business settings, except for one memorable occasion.

The CEO of one of my former companies delivered a once-in-a-lifetime rah-rah speech at an annual sales meeting that succeeded in bringing 500 people to their feet ready to march of to (business) war.

It went something like this:

“For the past five years, all I’ve been hearing are excuses from our sales teams: 

‘The product has too many bugs.’

‘Technical support isn’t good.’

‘Pricing is out of line.’

‘I don’t have enough leads.’

‘I don’t have good leads.’

‘Blah. Blah. Blah.’

Well, guess what?  We’ve spent 25 million dollars over the past five years addressing these issues:

No more product quality issues

No more technical support issues

No more pricing issues

No more poor quality leads

No more F@#@$^K’NG EXCUSES!!!!”

And there is was.  The first and only time I’ve ever heard a senior executive curse in front of a large audience.  I have to admit.  It knocked my f%#&@k’ng socks off.  However, given the context of the occasion, the message and the nature of what our CEO was trying to accomplish, it was perfectly timed, and instantly effective.  I’ve been in a lot of “inspirational” kick off meetings, but this one is the only one I remember nearly verbatim.

So, when is OK to swear in business? I front of a small group of direct reports?  In casual conversation with a client over drinks?  In a formal meeting when you want to make a significant point?  What drives the acceptance of swearing in business?  Culture?  Geography? Hierarchy?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

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5 comments
  1. John said:

    I’d like to say never, but realisticly, in my PMO role and vendor manager, resorting to some choice language to emphasize urgency has been both effective, and yes, deeply satisfying.

    • of course, a fellow Brooklynite would feel this way…

  2. Glenn Grossman said:

    My mom say no. But I’m ok with it.

  3. Allan Zinky said:

    Sometimes folks need a kick in the a$$ to make things happen, and letting them know that ‘riding the perpetual excuse horse is frowned upon in this establishment’ is solidifying that message.

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