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Choose your words wisely


Profanity in the workplace is on the rise along with court filings and complaints to EEOC.

9 a.m.

Monday at Fordham Animal Hospital

Joan Smithson went to the front desk to sign in. She was there several minutes early for her appointment for Fred an easygoing Boxer with epilepsy.

As she filled out her registration, she couldn't help but hear the receptionist and one of the assistants talking. What surprised her was the rough language and the mean spirited things she was hearing apparently about a co-worker and a client that had just left the premises. The intonations were muted, but the rough language came through clear enough for her to hear the verbiage as she took a seat in the waiting room.

After she had filled out the registration and walked back to the desk, the receptionist smiled momentarily and took the form without comment. Joan noticed that the receptionist did not wear a name badge and was chewing erratically on a piece of gum.

She looked at the Boxer as she took her seat. Once again, the language behind the desk deteriorated. It was obvious that the receptionist was either unaware that her voice carried further than anticipated or she was somehow unaware that her language was anything other than unusual.

Meanwhile in the back of the hospital, the 18-gauge needle accidentally connected with Dr. John Fordham as he tried to administer some fluids to a cat. He shook it off and finally bleated out an expletive that he certainly thought would make him feel better.

Standing next to him, June Jarvis, his surgical assistant, had become partially immune to the "on and off" potty-mouthed remarks that the doctor would make. She was used to certain language and even joined in at the opportune moments that felt like this type of language would be safe. Most of the staff would clean up their language a bit when Dr. Fordham's wife made appearances. She was considered somewhat of a "Carrie Nation" figure to some of the younger staff members who had more than a glimmer of recall of early 20th Century American history.

12:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Fordham Animal Hospital

Suzie Partlow and Kim Peters were laughing in the corner of the surgical prep area. While recalling the events of a party they had attended together, they had peppered the air with numerous four-letter words and racy innuendoes. These young ladies hadn't noticed the new hire in the corner of the next room cleaning instruments and preparing packs for the next day's surgeries. Jared Malone listened. He could hardly miss the tawdry discourse in the adjacent room.

Jared, a muscular 20-something student at the local university, was eager to learn the ropes in the veterinary clinic because he was preparing to enter veterinary school if his grades held up. He also wanted to fit in at the Fordham Animal Hospital. He especially wanted to get to know Suzie better. Suzie had been in one of his classes before she had graduated last year and took a full-time job with Dr. Fordham. Yet, here he was — being pleasantly startled to overhear the "interesting" use of phrases coming from both Jamie and Suzie.

10 a.m.

Wednesday, Fordham Animal Hospital

Jared pulled a bottle down to package a prescription for a waiting client. Smiling, Suzie walked over and said hello. She started to ask him a question. Jared, without a second thought, twisted his mouth in an elfish grin and proceeded to tell her an off-color joke he had been rehearsing for several days. He thought it was hilarious and had a difficult time repressing his gleeful alacrity as he approached the punch line.

She was mortified as the end of the joke arrived with its entire array of sexual overtones. Suzie's smile became horizontal and then partially returned. She did not know how to react, and she groped for an appropriate response. It never arrived. She stammered momentarily about an animal that needed medication in the back and left. Jared misinterpreted her weak smile as a form of acceptance.


Suzie would be in the line of fire for more of the same as the weeks wore on. Instead of complaining to her boss, she would soon leave to work at another veterinary hospital.

The letter from the law firm would arrive within another month. As Dr. Fordham read through the dispatch, he dropped the letter to his desk and emitted a barely audible expletive.

At that exact moment Mrs. Fordham had silently appeared behind him within his office.

"Now John, you know what I have always told you — you never know when that kind of language will come back to haunt you."

Words and culture

Within a short time, anyone visiting a veterinary hospital and allowed to penetrate the inner working of the hospital will uncover a language culture for the practice. I have found this on many visits. The owner or key members of the staff will draw you into the culture by testing your response (sometimes without knowing it themselves) by using certain words and ways of communicating their thoughts and concerns about everyday practice and problems encountered. This is the language culture of the workplace.

Often the talk can become base without the speaker even knowing it. These people are trying to express themselves and using such wording to create emphasis and impact on the hearer without becoming creative. It is the lazy approach to emphasis. In any case, it does not belong in a professional office.

If management allows this culture of profanity to exist, it leads to other inappropriate workplace behaviors. This is often totally unintended. My understanding is that courts seldom consider the intentions of the speaker — only the impact on the hearer.

The American workplace

Profanity in the workplace has been increasingly on the rise along with court filings and complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is according to business journals nationwide.

It is not surprising that American culture, in its rush to embrace inclusiveness, has allowed crass and inappropriate language to leak into the cultural mix at the same time. This falls into the classification of "be careful what you ask for, you may actually get it." Or as one recent country and western song's stanza states: "Thank God for unanswered prayers."

Where has this led us? Well, apparently there is a consulting firm in Chicago that charges $3,000 per session to help workers stop their swearing ways.

Steps to take

First of all, if you do not have an employee handbook, you should write one immediately. The American Animal Hospital Association has software available to help you structure one, and I recommend it. In that handbook there should be a section that addresses appropriate language in the veterinary workplace. Two categories of words need to be addressed.

  • Words that are slurs or demeaning including racial, ethnic and gender-based comments.

  • Words that refer to body parts and bodily functions.

Included within this heading should be restrictions on sexual harassment and discrimination at all levels. It is important to note that it is impossible to include all scenarios in your employee handbook. It is therefore important for management to set the tone for professional demeanor by his or her actions and words in the workplace. This will take some time and without effort — habits are hard to break.

Therefore, you must make sure that you enforce your own code of conduct and include some form of disciplinary measure in your handbook. It will help address the issue at a staff meeting. (You are having regular meetings aren't you?) It is important for management and ownership to lead the way. The culture often comes from the top.

What about free speech? The Constitution does not address this issue for the private sector; it is a restriction on government not private enterprise.

Where all this can head:

Profanity and loose talk is in league with the following which need to be skipped altogether:

  • Racial, ethnic, religious and gender putdowns

  • Inappropriate jokes

  • Backrubs and massage

  • Inappropriate touching

  • Language with double meaning

  • Gossip—malicious or otherwise.

All this can lead to a hostile and uncomfortable environment for many in the workplace. It also can lead to needless litigation.


Now some of you will say what on earth is this country coming to—we are surrounded by excrement and body parts every day.

I would respond that the professional culture of the practice begins at the top and moving in and out of gray areas with regard to proper language is insidious and a major effort must be made just to make one aware of the problem. Bottom line: it creeps into your word life like a slow fog and remains there if we let it. Don't let it.

Profanity is related to poor speech patterns and lack of self-esteem. Instead of using profanity as a word crutch, it is time for us to use our imaginations and bring real humor and joy back to the workplace with our language. Do it to enrich and not degrade the lives of those around us.

Dr. Lane is a graduate of the University of Illinois. He owns and manages two practices in southern Illinois. Dr. Lane completed a master's degree in agricultural economics in 1996. He is a speaker and author of numerous practice management articles. Dr. Lane also offers a broad range of consulting services and can be reached at david.lane@mchsi.com. The people introduced in this column are fictitious.

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