You may have seen recent press coverage of an employment tribunal case in which a manager swears during a meeting. This has prompted widespread comment; Good Morning Britain carried out a survey on Twitter asking, ‘should the f-word be banned at work?’ The result was firmly against any such ban (61% against a ban and 39% in favour of a ban). In this case, the manager did not direct his swearing at the employee but said in a meeting that he ‘didn’t give a f*** that [someone senior] was sponsoring [the deal in question]’. There was some dispute about whether this language was used, but the tribunal concluded that it probably was. They went on to say that ‘[these words] are fairly commonplace and do not carry the shock value that they might have done at another time.’ What do you think?
Swearing at work may seem unprofessional and offensive to some, but commonplace to others. This case shows that this is a subjective matter and depends very much on the context in which the words are used: there is a huge difference between an employee who spills a hot drink on themselves and swears and a manager who swears directly at an employee in an aggressive manner. This case certainly should not be seen as a green card to swear at work and employers should not dismiss complaints about the use of bad language in the workplace off hand.
In fact, the employee in this case won her claim of constructive unfair dismissal. The swearing incident formed just part of the employee’s grievance about her treatment at work. Her key complaint was that she was moved from high value accounts to low value accounts and put on a performance improvement plan without warning. She raised a formal grievance which was rejected without proper investigation. Following her unsuccessful appeal, she resigned and claimed constructive unfair dismissal. The tribunal found that the employer failed to follow their own procedures properly and their investigation into her grievance was inadequate. What is clear from the facts in this case is that there had been concerns about the employee’s performance for some time. As the tribunal confirmed, lack of capability is a fair reason to dismiss an employee, but an employer must follow a fair procedure before reaching any such decision. It is also worth remembering that the tribunal can increase compensation awarded to an employee by up to 25% where the employer unreasonably fails to follow the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures.
It was not the manager’s bad language, but the employer’s failure to properly investigate a grievance that ended up costing the employer in this case. It is a timely reminder, that any grievance raised by an employee should be properly considered and addressed in accordance with your grievance procedure.