Should I confront a coworker about his incessant cursing?
March 26, 2013 1:33 PM   Subscribe

I can hear my colleague constantly cursing in his office throughout the day. It's making for a tense and disruptive work environment for me and my other colleagues. Should I talk to him to get him to stop?

My colleague, who is located in the office next to mine, constantly curses to himself throughout the work day. It's sort of under his breath, but it's loud enough to hear from far away (I've heard it from two doors down before). Our office is relatively quiet, my department is located along a hallway where all of us are in offices in a line on one side. My day is punctuated every 15 minutes (or more often) by "FUCK", "JESUS CHRIST", "SHIT", and the like. Now, I'm not against cursing at all--I often use these words myself, but not at work and certainly not loud enough for half the hallway to hear.

It has become increasingly distracting to hear him have these mini-fits of rage where he will curse and sometimes pound his desk. We do the exact same job, which is really pretty laidback and not terribly stressful. I know these outbursts are job related because he often curses when the phone rings and it's someone to talk about a project, or he curses and then immediately gets on the phone to talk to one of our managers about something minor.

I've been situated next to him for two years now and this has been going on the whole time. I'm reaching my breaking point with this. It is stressing me out, as well as other coworkers within earshot (we've talked about this). None of us can move offices. I can close my door on occasion, but our manager has expressed his preference for us to keep our doors open as often as possible. I use headphones sometimes to listen to other things but can still hear him. I find myself relishing the days that he is out because of the relative peace and quiet. It's polluting our work environment and I know that would be an HR issue but I know the first thing they'll ask is if anyone has talked to him about it, and I do think we owe him that before escalating. I'm willing to be the one to talk to him about this because we are not terribly friendly with each other and if he gets mad at me I don't have any sort of relationship to lose. But how to even broach this topic? Or should I just suck it up and deal?
posted by Argyle Sock Puppet to Work & Money (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oh, and he most certainly does not have Tourette's Syndrome.
posted by Argyle Sock Puppet at 1:35 PM on March 26, 2013

none of us can move offices. I can close my door on occasion, but our manager has expressed his preference for us to keep our doors open as often as possible. I use headphones sometimes to listen to other things but can still hear him.

Have you (singular or plural) actually explained to your manager that your coworker is disruptive?
posted by scody at 1:36 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would IM him and say "Ron, please stop swearing. We can all hear you."
posted by tel3path at 1:36 PM on March 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Go to your manager and say "Could you ask Bob to tone down the cursing? It's distracting and unprofessional."

Or, if you'd rather, say the same thing to your coworker first.
posted by bondcliff at 1:37 PM on March 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

Just tell him. No big preamble. Tell him it's disruptive and it really sets a bad tone for the work environment. If he persists, get HR involved.

"Hey colleague, you may not know it, but the walls here are thin. I can hear you every time you swear in here and so can the people I'm on the phone with. It's really stressing me out and I wish that you would stop."

But personally I'd rather have a manager or HR handle it like I did with a colleague who was using way too much cologne. That's what they're there for. The magic words? Hostile work environment.
posted by inturnaround at 1:39 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Put a curse jar on his desk. Smile in a friendly manner and then say, I've been meaning to talk to you about your cursing. It's getting on my nerves. Turns out, it's bugging everyone else too. We figured out that if you continue at your usual rate and put money in the jar every time you curse, we could all get free lunch out of it, every week. Thanks in advance. The f-word is $5.00 so make sure you get plenty of fives from the bank. Curse jar doesn't give change. :)
posted by myselfasme at 1:40 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Hey Ron, can you keep it down?" It doesn't have to be any more elaborate than that.

Don't make it about the cursing, since he could stop swearing and shout "Fiddlesticks!" or something. It's not about the cursing, it's about the noise.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:40 PM on March 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

If I tell you to suck it up and deal, will you listen?

On the Grand Scheme Of Things, this is really really minor. Pet peeve area.

Instead of trying to change him, change your reaction to him. This has grown into a Big Issue for you because you let it. Pause, next time he swears and you get irritated with it, and ask yourself is this really worth your emotional investment.

Just try to practice control of your own response. "Oh boy, bob is swearing again. *rolls eyes*" and then let it go and continue on with your work.

Barring that, the next time he starts pounding on his desk, walk over and be like: "Bob.. is everything okay?" - just letting you know you heard him without bringing attention that it annoys you might help curb some of it.
posted by royalsong at 1:45 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

In my cubicle farm experience, the fact that you've put up with him for two years can establish a very weird, uncomfortable sense of normalcy or even complicity. The only way to confront that is head on. When you talk to your manager or to your colleague directly, just be up front that you've tried to overlook his expressions of anger and you simply have passed the point where you can continue to put up with his acting out.

Also, in as non-gossipy a way as possible, let your other coworkers know you're going to talk to management and/or angry guy. That way they are prepared to back you up if they get called on to confirm angry guy's behavior.
posted by mindsound at 1:46 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

don't think of it as a confrontation, think of it as giving this guy a heads-up. if he's been doing it for 2 years and nobody's said anything, he may have absolutely no clue that it's a problem. don't assume he's going to be defensive or weird about it. this will make you more relaxed when you have a chat with him, and it will make the interaction go more smoothly. if it really stresses you out, have the same non-confrontational chat with his boss. you don't owe him anything, but for your sake you want this to go well.
posted by facetious at 1:46 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's entirely possible that he's not fully aware of how much he does this. Cortex mentioned something similar recently regarding his own language in the podcasts. Simply calling it to your co-worker's attention may have an effect, with some gentle reminders if/when he forgets himself and starts doing it again. Give him a chance to self-correct before you start policing him with curse jars or bringing down the wrath of HR.
posted by Longtime Listener at 1:47 PM on March 26, 2013

I would probably tell you and your cutesy "curse jar" to go fuck yourselves. However, as an adult, I also know better than to loudly shout throughout the day in an area where people are quietly trying to work in an office environment.

Just talk to your manager about it - they get to have the uncomfortable conversation with the guy.
posted by HopperFan at 1:48 PM on March 26, 2013 [19 favorites]

On the Grand Scheme Of Things, this is really really minor. Pet peeve area.

I disagree. Ongoing, disruptive noise contributes significantly to higher levels of stress and lower levels of productivity in work environments.
posted by scody at 1:49 PM on March 26, 2013 [10 favorites]

Yeah, the curse jar is not a good idea. Treat him like an adult. Talk to him. Tell him it bothers you (you plural, not just you personally). If things don't improve, then go to your manager.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:51 PM on March 26, 2013 [10 favorites]

As someone who has been asked by coworkers to tone down behavior that meant nothing to me but that annoyed everyone else (e.g. talking loudly on the phone, typing loudly, piling up things in a specific way on my desk): this will be an absolutely mortifying conversation for both of you, but assuming he is not doing this on purpose, it should be OK.

My suggestions given the times I have had this convo: sandwich it, and have an exit strategy. Give him a real compliment about something you really like, say the hard thing, then another real compliment, then leave. E.g.:

"Hi Bob, do you have a minute to chat? I really liked how you handled that presentation yesterday; your graphs were great. I hate to say this, but we can hear every word that is said in every one of our offices. It is really disruptive to everyone else's work to hear you shouting under your breath every 15 minutes; and if we have a client in here we really can't have people shouting swears and names of religious figures. Can I ask you to keep it quieter every day, and select some less salacious words on the once-a-month occasion when you might get so frustrated that you can't hold it in? Thanks. Oh, and I really liked how you did the file cleanup-- that was helpful and I am so pleased to see all the widgets in one place. Now I gotta go get some coffee-- see you later!"
posted by holyrood at 1:53 PM on March 26, 2013

Personally, I would say something to management and have them tell him to knock it off. I don't like confrontation and I'd be worried he'd have a grudge about it or he would just not stop. That said, at least if you asked him first, then if you did go to management, it looks less like you're not handling your own work issues that you should handle on your own, but then if they do say something to him, he will probably suspect it's you who went to management. You might have to either confront him and hope it works or just immediately go to management.

If you do say something to him, maybe you can make it less about you. "Hey, I've heard some people complaining about you loudly swearing in your office. You might want to get a stress ball or something and knock it off because sound carries in this office. And you know how people talk in this place -- it's not worth getting a memo from management over. I go for walks when I'm having a bad day."
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:01 PM on March 26, 2013

I know that would be an HR issue but I know the first thing they'll ask is if anyone has talked to him about it

So? You say "No, I'm not going to get into it with him."

Does anyone in his vicinity ever speak on the phone to people who give your company money? If so, that is the only discussion that needs to be had. He needs to shut up.

If that will not work as an incentive, just tell the manager it has to stop and find out what documentation you need to provide.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:02 PM on March 26, 2013

Yeah, about HR telling you to talk to husband dealt with this exact thing pretty effectively, I think. He had a coworker regularly exploding in rage, and when HR tried to tell him to talk to the guy, my husband just acted mystified. "Um, the problem is not with me. The problem is you have an employee frequently exploding in rage. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with me." HR acknowledged it, and dealt with it themselves. The guy simmered down.
posted by Malla at 2:18 PM on March 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think it would be really funny if all your colleagues got together a response. So every time he says FUCK, you would hear cascading down the hallway one at a time FUCK FUCK Fuck fuck fuck fuck
posted by CathyG at 2:19 PM on March 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

Put a curse jar on his desk.

Prepare to get that jar thrown at you.

If his cursing bothers you, tell him. Don't treat him like a five year old.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:33 PM on March 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

The behavior is inappropriate, it's impacting you, and there are probably others who feel the same way about it. It's unfortunate that it's been allowed to go on for so long.

It's best to talk to him yourself if you feel like you can. In a healthy work environment, peers should be able to hold each other accountable for their actions and he should appreciate hearing it from you instead of in some other way. Your manager would prefer this as well -- none of the three of you wants to turn it into a management or an HR issue. Open by telling him that you should have brought it up a long time ago, but it's a hard topic to bring up and you hoped it would sort itself out somehow. 99% of the time the conversation will go fabulously well and you'll leave feeling great about it. He'll have concrete information about how you feel, rather than the nebulous and less powerful version he'd get from a third party.

If you can't get yourself to do this or if you don't feel like your relationship with him will allow for it, then by all means take it to your manager or to HR.
posted by LowellLarson at 2:33 PM on March 26, 2013

This is why people are paid more to be managers: To deal with awkward and difficult situations. Ask your manager to say something. No need to get HR involved, but you also don't have to do it.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:38 PM on March 26, 2013

If you do close your door, can you still hear him? I would present it to your manager thusly:

1) Bob is distracting
2) His behavior needs to be addressed
3) Until something changes, I need to shut my door in order to concentrate.
posted by desjardins at 2:45 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I swear a lot. A lot a lot. I also talk (and swear) to myself way more than I should at work. Personally I'd have no problems with someone coming to me and saying in a totally neutral simple way "Your swearing is starting to really bother me, can you please tone it down?". The answer would be "Sorry, I'll make an effort to stop" followed by a lot less swearing. Because yeah, it is totally unprofessional and not a constructive way to deal with stress, particularly with the aggravated tone and the desk pounding too (which I don't do and ug, hearing that regularly really isn't something you need to suck it up and get over). Going to your manager or HR is totally fine if he gets upset or weird about it or if he won't stop and it might make sense as a first option if he is a generally hostile or easily angered person, but I didn't see anything like that in your question. So just don't make it a big thing, don't focus on the past at all, don't put it up for discussion or apologise for how you feel, just tell him it's bugging you now and make the perfectly reasonable request that he stop. I know my swearing is mainly just a bad habit and I keep doing it because I have no real reason not to, assume it's the same for this guy until he gives you reason to think otherwise.

But you do have to make it about you. None of this "other people think" or "everyone else is bothered by it" because my response to that crap is, if someone else has a problem with me then they can suck it up and come talk to me instead of bitching to you. You're the one being affected in this case, so own that when you talk with him about it.
posted by shelleycat at 3:29 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

My downstairs neighbour used to loooove to slam her door when she got mad, which was about once a week. The whole house would shake. One time I genuinely thought it was someone throwing rocks at the house, it was so loud, so I ran downstairs to say, "Are you ok? Wow, I thought you dropped something heavy, what was that noise?" I don't think she realized it affected the whole house. I notice that since that day, she has pretty much stopped this behaviour.

So, if you feel weird confronting him, maybe when he swears, IM him immediately, asking, "Yikes, are you ok?" He'll say yeah, then, "Okay good, you startled me!" He probably has no idea you guys can hear him, so this is a nice, totally non-confrontational and actually kind of affectionate way to let him know he's audible. Do NOT do this passive-aggressively or sarcastically; genuinely ask if he's ok. Hell, maybe he's not, be sincere. He'll probably get quieter and less frequent pretty soon.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:32 PM on March 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Jesus Jumping Christ, Bob. I was on the fucking phone with a fucking client. Can you watch your fucking language?"

Then go to your (lowest mutual) manager if he doesn't tone it down. Settling interpersonal issues is the point of managers. Emphasize what this does to your productivity. Make that person earn his or her paycheck. If that doesn't work, talk to HR. I that doesn't work, well, now you know your relative worth to the company.
posted by Etrigan at 4:30 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't sandwich it between compliments or give him a curse jar. Just be direct. His cursing is loud, it's distracting you, and you'd appreciate it if he could keep it down. See you later Bob, gotta get back to work. Repeat once if you like/as needed, then talk to your manager/HR. There's really no absolute rule that you must engage with him first, but it's a nice thing to do if it's possible he's just clueless about the volume of his outbursts and how they affect his neighbors (which he may well be if no one has ever talked to him about it, but that seems somehow not terribly likely).

If him getting "mad" at you is actually a legitimate thing that could happen (meaning, he is a hostile person, could create a more tense work environment, etc), skip directly to management. Period. Do you actually know this has never been addressed with him?
posted by sm1tten at 5:40 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the answers, everyone. Unfortunately, I can't make it about clients overhearing as we are not client-facing and all outside-of-department business is generally handled in meetings held in other areas. And when I said that we're not terribly friendly, I mean that we barely speak (not even a hello or goodbye--we interact only when absolutely necessary). He does seem to have a general hostile attitude that others in the department have picked up on, and it has alienated him from most everyone (although I suspect our managers remain clueless about this). Hence everyone's general hesitation in approaching him--we're not on those kinds of terms where a friendly pop-in is going to be received well. The one person who might be able to do that sort of thing doesn't want to because of potential backlash from him.

But I do think that I can wait till the next outburst and do the "Everything OK? Yeah? Mind toning it down a bit?" thing. We'll see if that works and take any necessary next steps if not.

Thanks again for your wisdom!
posted by Argyle Sock Puppet at 7:41 AM on March 27, 2013

Hence everyone's general hesitation in approaching him--we're not on those kinds of terms where a friendly pop-in is going to be received well. The one person who might be able to do that sort of thing doesn't want to because of potential backlash from him.

I'm still not clear if you've spoken to your manager about it, or if your manager is otherwise aware of your colleague's behavior.
posted by scody at 8:10 AM on March 27, 2013

Generally, a hostile attitude that keeps others at bay often indicates that this is a tactic used on purpose, not just a cranky guy; it's a tool used by a manipulator. You encourage this tactic by letting it work the way he intends it to work.

Direct talk, along the lines of the above suggestions is a good tactic. You can focus your discussion so that you are polite: his swearing is distracting, will he please try to not be so loud? Don't be baited into an argument if he's contentious, but be willing to talk with him if he seems interested. If the conversation goes south, walk away from it without getting the last word.

Curse jars and other forms of bullshit are just argument-fodder. If you get a completely negative result from X, then you could talk with the immediate supervisor, and explain that his open-door policy is not useful to your productivity, because X's outbursts are distracting. After that, the rest is on them, and it's up to you to adapt to what happens.

You may be required to suck it up and deal, but a reasonable discussion of the situation doesn't seem to be out of line. Too bad you don't have a suggestion box in your office. Written notes, if you resist hyperbole, are powerful.
posted by mule98J at 9:01 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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