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Employment Blog

I Swear It Can Be Harassment: Workplace Profanity

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on December 6, 2013
Filed under Employment

A recent federal court lawsuit out of the State of Oregon serves as a great reminder that workplace profanity can be used as evidence to support a so-called "hostile work environment" harassment claim under certain circumstances. The case is Griffin v. City of Portland. In Griffin, the plaintiff/employee, who characterized herself as a "devout Christian," brought a religious-based hostile work environment claim against her employer based on her coworkers' repeated "use of God's and Jesus Christ's names as curse words" (the plaintiff characterized such language as profanity, which she found deeply offensive because of her religious beliefs). The plaintiff claimed that when she heard this type of religious profanity, she would often inform the speaker that this language offended her.

On one particular occasion, the plaintiff sneezed, startling one of her coworkers who responded, "Jesus Christ!" The plaintiff commented to a different coworker that this language offended her and she was going to complain to management. Upon hearing this statement, the plaintiff's coworker commented, "I'm sick of your Christian attitude, your Christian [expletive] all over your desk, and your Christian [expletive] all over the place." This comment precipitated plaintiff's harassment complaint.

Interestingly, in this case, the Court separated profanity into two distinct categories: (1) profanity that expressly implicates religious ideas, such as using God's name as a curse word; and (2) profanity that does not implicate religious ideas, such as simple expletives. Significantly, the Court concluded, "[a] rational jury could find that at least some of this profanity occurred because of [plaintiff's] religion [f]or instance plaintiff may be able to show that some of this profanity was uttered because of hostility to [plaintiff's] religious beliefs, and was subjectively and objectively unreasonable (from the perspective of a reasonable employee with [plaintiff's] fundamental characteristics)."

Management personnel are, in my experience, often reluctant to address profanity in the workplace not wanting to be viewed as uptight "language police." This is especially true in work environments where simple expletives are common and are viewed as part of the workplace culture or identity. For those management personnel, the Griffin case is a powerful tool that may be used to persuasively curtail or eliminate workplace profanity. As Griffin illustrates, allowing profanity to continue in the face of communicated opposition (opposition that doesn't usually come to the attention of supervisory personnel) can have expensive consequences. If profanity could be interpreted by an employee as made because of that employee's protected classification (e.g., sex, race, religion, age, etc.) it becomes dangerous workplace language, even if to some it's a simple expletive.