Swearing at work and permissive
When anti-social becomes social and incivility
Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins
University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the use of expletives and swearing in the
workplace. It proposes to challenge leadership style and to suggest ideas for management best
Design/methodology/approach – Case studies and qualitative analysis were applied, methods
that ﬁt well for this sensitive topic.
Findings – This paper identiﬁes the relevance, and even the importance, of using non-conventional
and sometimes uncivil language in the workplace.
Research limitations/implications – Sample size and representativeness present limitations.
Practical implications – There is a need for leaders to apply, under certain circumstances, a
permissive leadership culture. This paper advises leaders on how it may lead to positive consequences.
Originality/value – The paper is an original contribution to an area where research is scarce. A
certain originality element stems from the fact that, focusing on swearing language, the paper found it
necessary to use swear words (avoiding usage of the explicit form); bearing in mind the purpose of the
paper, the paper hopes that this will not cause offence to the readership of the journal.
Keywords Leadership, Linguistics, Employee behaviour, Problem employees
Paper type Research paper
Much of the literature in organizational psychology and management has focused on the
positive side of people management. Conceptual frameworks have emphasized positive
elements in terms of both attitudes (satisfaction, commitment, and involvement) and
behaviour (performance and citizenship). Studies of negative behaviour (such as
misconduct and aggression) exist too. A growing literature has emerged on adverse
behaviour in the organizational context (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). Studies
typically focused on the negative outcomes of physical or verbal misbehaviour.
We have developed a model which suggests that under certain circumstances,
negative behaviours may end with positive outcomes for individuals, groups, and
consequently their organizations. Our aim is to explore the use of swearing in the
workplace, not merely in its dysfunctional, aggressive form, but rather focusing on its
possible positive aspects. These aspects can be swearing that enables employees to
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
As this paper deals with swearing language it was found necessary to use swear words (not in
their explicit form). Bearing in mind the purpose of the paper, the authors hope that this will not
cause offence to the readership of the journal.
Received July 2006
Revised October 2006
Accepted November 2006
Leadership & Organization
Vol. 28 No. 6, 2007
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited