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Your Office Guide to Swearing At Work

Is there a place for swearing in the @#$%-ing office?




There are many problems with profanity. It’s jarring. It’s potentially offensive. It can seem a little familiar. But there are many wonderful things about profanity, too. It’s jarring. It’s potentially offensive.

It can seem a little familiar… and unhinged… and manic. But there are times – in business and in life – when unhinged and manic are exactly what you need to be. But before we figure out how to utilise profanity, let’s figure out why it’s so powerful.

According to Melissa Mohr, author of the fascinating book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, we all have profane thoughts – it’s just that our brains typically knock them down before we say them.

Consider the 10% to 30% percent of Tourette’s syndrome patients who suffer from coprolalia, the uncontrollable utterance of obscene words.

Related: This Advice Is For You, Smart-Ass

Mohr writes: “Many people have such thoughts, but their prefrontal cortex – the executive area of their brains – overrides and shuts them down.

“The current theory is that people with Tourette’s syndrome have a problem in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a role in making choices among several actions and inhibiting certain motor functions. The executive areas of their brains can fight against their limbic urges for a time… but eventually the lower brain wins.”

Unfiltered language

So it’s not that people with coprolalia have more profane thoughts; it’s that they’re unable to prevent them from being spoken. Profanities aren’t added to our thoughts – they’re there all along. When we utter a profanity, we’re not adding to our language, we’re simply not suppressing it.

Profanities represent honest, authentic thoughts, and hearing them is a powerful, memorable thing. As Mohr points out, when US college professor Timothy Jay gave subjects a list of 36 ‘taboo’ and ‘non-taboo’ words, the top five the subjects recalled were from the first category.

The good kind of profanity

Not that many people want to go on record saying it, but there is a good kind of profanity.

Mikael Berner, co-founder and CEO of US-based app company Mountain View, says of his company, “We don’t have a hard and fast rule about swearing, but we do have a hard and fast rule about being respectful to others. Swearing can express surprise and delight, and it can also be derogatory – and if it’s used in that latter fashion, it’s unacceptable.”

But then he told us a story about a business he had worked at where his manager was adored by the employees.

“He was a really good leader, and he served customers well. For some reason swearing was part of the culture. I don’t know how they never managed to make it seem derogatory, but I never experienced it that way.”

The reason it didn’t seem derogatory is that it probably wasn’t derogatory. This is the good kind of profanity. And what good profanity can uncover is, well, goodness, not badness. This is profanity spoken out of joy, excitement, comfort. Even if it’s spoken out of frustration, its goal is to bring people closer and get them excited.

The test is: Are you smiling when you say it? Even if you’re not smiling on the outside, are you smiling on the inside? If there’s no smiling, then what you’re getting involved in is menace.

The bad kind

The bad kind is very, very bad. The fact that you’re using profanity is almost incidental; it’s the tone of your voice that’s most important – whether you sound like you’re angry.

If you’re attempting to bluster around and freak people out, profanity is only going to accentuate the fact that you’re out of control. And out of control may work in the short-term to shut people down or motivate them, but in the long-term things will break down. The awful residue of angry profanity isn’t worth the momentary relief.

This is why most people say not to use it. Ever. Even the guy who wrote a book about it says not to do it, mainly because of the historical volatility of the words themselves. Says Jesse Sheidlower, editor of The F-Word: “The important thing is how words are used, not how they have been used historically.

“Things may become less offensive over time, as with almost everything. But any racial or ethnic or religious term referring to a specific group has become vastly more offensive over time. If I were running a company, I would always take a cautious approach.”

Here’s a cautious approach: Don’t do it. Unless.

Unless what you’re saying could be made funnier, more entertaining, more memorable, more honest, more authentic. Because when profanity is used the right way, what you’re granting is honesty and friendship.

For your professional associates, profanity is a window into what you’re actually thinking. When you’re forcefully making a point via the employment of an expletive, you’re bringing people closer to you and letting them in.

But what does the lawyer say?

We spoke with Michael Zweig, partner at New York’s Loeb & Loeb, to find out the legal issues related to profanity in the workplace.

What are the possible legal issues surrounding profanity in a work environment?

You make yourself a target for future litigation if you know an individual is highly sensitised to certain types of speech, and it’s repeated. If a particular individual is subjected to speech on a repeated basis after making it known that it is offensive to them, it could be regarded then as personal and directed at that person, as opposed to the environment in general.

We’d never do that. Mostly we just yell out profanities due to excitement.

With entrepreneurs it may be an open office environment, and someone may have a primal scream from their desk that may be disruptive or inappropriate, but it would not reasonably be seen as being directed at a particular employee.

If, on the other hand, you’re using sexualised words, frequent usages of those words and behaviour may be taken as sexual harassment or creation of a hostile environment.

Use common sense.

Bottom line? Profanity need not be excised from the workplace completely.

Key Technical Matters

Everyone has profane thoughts. It’s just that most of the time, our brain’s prefrontal cortex shuts them down. In our professional lives, the prefrontal cortex is working very, very hard.

When employing a string of profanities, it’s best not to jump up and down, Yosemite Sam’s communication approach notwithstanding.

  • It’s okay to say frickin’. It’s okay to say frackin’. It’s not okay to say frickin’ fracking.’ Unless of course you’re talking about fracking, the process by which rock layers are fractured by pressurised liquid in order to release petroleum or gas, in which case frickin’ frackin’ is the funniest possible way to refer to the subject.
  • Dadgummit! works only if you’re from the Deep South.
  • Curses! Works only if you’re from the 19th century.
  • $#&*% works only in cartoons. “Dollar sign, pound sign, ampersand, asterisk, percentage” is not an effective profanity when spoken aloud.
  • Either say it or don’t say it. ‘What the F?’ No. ‘You gotta be S-ing me.’ No. ‘When the K did you get here?’ No. (What does K stand for anyway?)
  • What the hey? Absolutely not.
  • What the H-E-double hockey sticks? We’re not even going to dignify that with a [expletive deleted] response.

Disclaimer No. 1:

This column will assume that your every professional move is not determined by a team of lawyers who are advising you that any use of profanity — especially ‘sexualised’ profanity — could result in a lawsuit.

Disclaimer No. 2:

The writer of this column works in an office in which profanity isn’t frowned upon. Mainly because it’s fun and, sometimes, funny. (For instance, there are two ways to say, “Hand me that stapler,” and only one is amusing.)

Disclaimer No. 3:

If you’re reading this column to find out whether or not to use profanity around customers, the answer is: No [expletive deleted] way.

Related: 9 Reasons to Quit Your Job As Soon As You Can

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Managing Staff

Why Uninsured Employees Are Bad For Business

Often businesses assume that their employees will take the necessary steps to insure themselves, but in reality, many people don’t. By covering your employees you’re not just insuring their financial futures if something happens, you’re covering your business too.

Anthony Miller




Entrepreneurship is not for sissies. It involves dreams and risks. Cash flow is crucial and often thin on the ground, as owners juggle the challenges of overheads and growth. An entrepreneur or SME owner cannot fall back on the financial cushioning that is characteristic of much larger corporate businesses.

That said, as an entrepreneur have you ever thought what would happen if one of your staff members were suddenly unable to provide for their families due to death or disability? Would their family be left destitute? Would you as a business owner feel obliged to contribute to cover funeral costs and offer support to the family concerned?

If so, you should be considering a group life policy as the financial and emotional strain on the business can be significant. Group cover is generally far cheaper than retail cover. In many cases, employees can even cancel their individual cover and, in so doing, save a significant amount of money.

Recognising both the need and the opportunity, our business, Simply Financial Services, recently introduced an online Group Cover product. These are our top five questions asked by business owners when considering employee benefits.

Related: The Simple Way To Pay Wages When Your Staff Don’t Have Bank Accounts

1. Why is group life cover better for my employees than their retail alternatives?

Group life insurance holds numerous benefits for individuals. First, since the employer pays the premium, persistency is typically better and dependants are more consistently protected. Second, the cost of group cover is often far lower (for equivalent cover) than the individual could get directly. Third, better cover may be provided for people with impaired health. And finally, waiting periods are often waived or shortened. We’re convinced that good value group cover is a net positive investment for a company.

2. Is group life cover affordable?

Group life cover starts at very affordable levels. Meaningful cover can be obtained from about R49 per employee per month. Also, there are ways to structure the payment of premiums in such a way that it becomes part of your employees’ total remuneration package. You may for example want to structure it so that the employee makes a contribution, which is matched by the business.

Affordability is obviously important to SME owners and entrepreneurs. Costs need to be weighed against benefits both in terms of increased loyalty and job satisfaction from employees, and the potential cost to the business if a key member of staff is disabled or dies.

3. What does group life cover typically include?

Cover varies a lot from provider to provider and ranges from very simple funeral policies to very complex death and disability cover. Cover can be a multiple of annual salary or a fixed amount of cover for both life and disability, and a fixed amount of cover for family funerals. You should look out for the following when selecting your product:

  • What’s included in the cover? What benefits does it include? In our view, you should look for a product that provides good value protection products (eg. life, disability, family funeral). This caters for as wide a range of scenarios as possible. Be careful you don’t end up with a bundle of value added services (eg. free airtime) and very little life or disability cover.
  • Free cover limits. Is there a guaranteed amount of cover (the ‘free cover limit’), up to which your employees are covered for death and disability from both natural and accidental causes (full cover), irrespective of employee numbers?
  • Waiting period. How long would you have to wait, from when you take out the policy, before your employees get full cover, rather than just accidental-only cover?
  • How does the price compare with your alternatives — both group and retail — and how are premiums likely to change over time?

Related: 11 SA Entrepreneurs on What They’ve Learnt About Managing Staff

4. What’s hidden in the fine print?

It’s really important to check the fine print, to ensure there are no nasty surprises when there’s a claim. Many providers have complex policy rules and documents, and SMEs only discover the details when it’s too late. A good barometer is to look at how simple and transparent the sign-up process is, and how user-friendly the policy documents are.

5. What provider should I choose?

Make sure your insurance provider has a reliable track record, and is underwritten by a recognised insurance provider. There are a lot of fly-by-night players out there and you need to ensure that the policy you are buying has the backing of established and well-recognised market players. You need to be confident that your insurer can be trusted to pay when it comes to claim time.

6. How do I go about buying and administering the policy?

Traditionally, brokers have sold group life policies and provided admin support to their clients. Since quite a lot of work is involved and commissions are limited, brokers have not typically been available to SMEs. As such, there is a long tail of SMEs who don’t have group life cover and their employees are at risk. Fortunately, there are now options available that allow SMEs to do it themselves online and for brokers to serve SMEs cost-effectively.

You need to decide whether you want the peace of mind of working through a broker or the speed, control and convenience of doing it yourself online.

In conclusion, we believe group life insurance offers much value and peace of mind for SMEs. While many South Africans have funeral cover, very few have life or disability cover.  As an SME owner or manager, you can show you care by taking a policy for your employees.  Not only will you probably save money relative to an equivalent retail product, you’ll be amazed at how much your employees will appreciate your care and generosity. And you’ll be able to sleep easy, knowing their families will be taken care of if they die or become disabled.

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Managing Staff

Day Zero And Your Employees – What An Entrepreneur Needs To Know

With Day Zero pushed out to 2019, entrepreneurs in the Western Cape are still left with one concerning question: “What will happen to my business should the water supply still run dry?”

Jose Jorge




Depending on their reliance on municipal water, entrepreneurs could potentially find themselves without the ability to generate revenue in the absence of water. During this time, they will still be expected to pay staff a salary, creating a potentially untenable situation for certain businesses.

It is imperative that entrepreneurs in the Western Cape region start early discussions with their employees to find possible solutions that can be implemented should Day Zero actually hit. CDH provides the following possibilities to consider:

To pay or not to pay, that is the question

The duty of the employer to pay remuneration continues as long as the employee tenders his or her services. This is also the case where an employee is prevented from working, due to an unanticipated or unpreventable act such as a natural disaster.

Related: SME Survey: Day Zero Warning Hits SMEs Hard

An employer would have to pay its employees that tender work even if it cannot provide them with any work. Fortunately for employers, labour law recognises certain measures that can be taken to minimise this burden. The two most common are short-time and the temporary suspension of payment of remuneration. It is also important to note that these two measures can only be implemented if all parties concerned have agreed to it.

Short-time is a system of work that is used for periods when there is little or no work. The system recognises that paying an employee for periods when he or she is not working places undue strain on the financial position of the employer and the employee.

Employees may either agree to short-time in a contract of employment, or an employer may enter into a collective agreement regulating short-time with a union representing the affected employees.

A temporary suspension of payment of remuneration may be implemented when there is some prospect of the work situation improving in the near future and the employer being able to provide the employee with work. This may be implemented as an alternative to a dismissal.

Where there is no agreement to these alternatives an entrepreneur will have to engage with his or her employees, explain the company’s position and attempt to secure an agreement in this regard. If an employer is unable to do so, he or she may have to consider retrenchments.

Can you retrench employees as a result of Day Zero?

This is a difficult question. An employer will have to consider whether employees’ inability to work will be for a prolonged period.

There is no way of knowing how long a drought will continue. With the unpredictable effects of global warming, the weather has become increasingly difficult to forecast. The World Wildlife Fund anticipates that if the Western Cape region receives the same rainfall pattern as last year, the drought will continue for six months.

Related: Why Innovative Employee Benefits Are Your Competitive Advantage

The Labour Relations Act, No. 66 of 1995 allows an employer to retrench employees for ‘operational requirements’. Operational requirements are defined as requirements based on economic, technological, structural or similar needs.

In order to establish that an ‘operational requirements’ dismissal is substantively fair, an employer must determine that genuine operational requirements exist. If the anticipated consequence of the drought is that a business may not be able to continue with its operations – without access to municipal water – this would constitute an operational requirement.

In conclusion, CDH advises entrepreneurs in the region whose business is heavily reliant on water to consider entering into working arrangements with their employees for the duration of the drought. This will ensure that the entrepreneur and the employee are both in agreement regarding available options should Day Zero occur. It will also help provide a sustainable alternative to retrenchments.

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Managing Staff

10 Corny But Undeniably True And Inspiring Quotes About Teamwork

As Michael Jordan said, “Talent wins games; teamwork wins championships.” He ought to know.

Blake Snow



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With two games remaining, my daughter’s soccer team is in second place. They’ve won nine games and lost only one – to the team in third place.

Although that team doesn’t not have as many star players as our side, they beat us on the admittedly widely held but elusive principle that sharing the ball leads to more goals (and better defense) than impressive dribbling or individuality.

In other words, their 11 played better as a team than the three remarkable players on my daughter’s team. Granted, the third-place team probably dropped more games than we did because playing as an effective team in consecutive games is harder to do. After all, it’s easier for a few great players to show up to every game (as we have mostly done) than a reliable team.

Related: 7 Team Building Ideas To Create An Engaged Team

In any case, my daughter’s “club” will square off against the first place team this weekend. I suspect they’ll lose unless they listen to Michael Jordan: “Talent wins games; teamwork wins championships.”

The same is true in business and life in general.

If we want to “win championships” in both of those, we have to get others involved, pass more, risk failure, allow teammates to learn from their mistakes by letting them commit them and putting the needs of the group above our own selfish aspirations.

To that end, I encourage you, my daughter’s soccer team and everyone else interested in winning to consider and internalise my 10 favourite quotes on the importance of competing as a team. Some are a bit corny. All are true.

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