Profanity Can Also Be a Controversial Issue in the Workplace

By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr., Managing Member, Seltzer Chadwick Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

Political controversies, such as President Trump’s alleged use of the term “sh**hole” in reference to third-world countries, serve as a reminder to private employers that profanity in the workplace can also be a controversial issue. There is no federal law which expressly addresses profanity in the workplace, but profanity can still be at the heart of a legal dispute under applicable employment laws.

Protected Profanity?

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), for instance, has said that concerted activities for the mutual aid or protection of employees can be legally protected under the National Labor Relations Act even if laced with profanity. Several decisions show just how far the NLRB has gone to protect employee speech rights.

On May 19, 2014, an administrative law judge of the NLRB in Hooters of Ontario Mills found that a Hooters’ franchise had unlawfully fired an employee for shouting “you’re a f***ing b**ch” within earshot of customers during a bikini contest. The judge opined that the profanity was tied to a protected complaint that the contest was rigged. The employee was ordered to be reinstated.

On May 28, 2014, in Plaza Auto Center, Inc., the NLRB held that a business owner unlawfully discharged an employee who called him a “f***ing mother f***ing”, a “f***ing crook”, and an a**hole.” The NLRB said these statements were made during a meeting in which the employee lodged a protected complaint as to the calculation of sales commissions. The employee was ordered to be reinstated.

On March 31, 2015, in Pier Sixty, LLC, the NLRB again held that an employer unlawfully terminated an employee for the following Facebook post about his supervisor during a union organizing campaign: “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!! Vote YES for the UNION.” The NLRB opined that the Facebook comments were directed at the supervisor’s asserted mistreatment of employees, and sought redress through the upcoming election, and thus constituted protected, concerted and union activity. The employee was ordered to be reinstated.

Unlawful Profanity?

Under certain circumstances, moreover, workplace profanity may provide the basis for a claim of harassment under federal discrimination laws. Indeed, some decisions have found that severe and pervasive profanity can be the entire basis of a harassment claim.

On October 25, 2013, in Griffin v. City of Portland, an Oregon federal court decided the city’s motion for summary judgment as to a religious discrimination suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) and Oregon law. The employee, a devout Christian, alleged frequent profanity in the workplace, including the use of God’s and Jesus Christ’s name as curse words. The court found genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the employee was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her religion.

On April 28, 2008, in Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, the Eleventh Circuit decided a summary judgment motion as to a Title VII claim of sexual harassment. Unique to the fact pattern in this case was the existence of gender specific vulgarities which were not targeted or directed at women. The plaintiff specifically complained that sexually offensive language, such as “f**k”, “whore”, “b**ch”, “c*nt” and “d**k”, from multiple coworkers permeated the work environment every day. The court denied summary judgment for the employer.

Takeaway for Employers

As with many workplace issues, employers can face a legal tightrope when it comes to profanity in the workplace. An overly broad or aggressive approach can trigger an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB. Ignoring or tolerating profanity altogether can trigger a harassment complaint. To traverse this legal tightrope, it is imperative that managers and supervisors be trained as to how to lead by example and how to respond to cursing employees. The risk of not doing so can be dire.

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