Lynne Curry: Cursing that offends should be taken seriously

Lynne Curry

Q. I'm a laborer and work in construction. Some of the men I work with consider the F-word a noun, verb and adjective. I don't like it but I don't complain. What I can't handle is how often they use God's and Christ's names when swearing. I'm Christian, take my faith seriously and Christ is not a cuss word.

I've tried to talk with the guys, but it's an ever-changing crew with only a few of us here long term. Both of them try to keep it down around me.

I talked with my foreman. He told me if I can't take it I need to leave construction, but construction is all I know how to do and there aren't a lot of good construction jobs in the winter.

If I don't want to lose my job, what can I do?

A. By talking directly to your co-workers and asking your foreman for assistance you've taken the first two logical steps.

As that didn't work, you need more firepower. If you bring this situation to the attention of a savvy senior manager who wants to avoid legal liability, you'll likely get the help you need. If not, you can contact the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, which can help educate your employer.

Cursing that uses God's or Jesus' name creates a difficult and potentially hostile environment for those who take their Christian faith seriously. It may qualify as religious discrimination.

A recent case, Griffin v. City of Portland, demonstrates that employers need to take meaningful measures to investigate, address and remedy allegations of religious discrimination.

In this case, a devout Christian let her co-workers know they offended her by frequently using God's and Christ's names when swearing. Although her co-workers didn't aim their cussing at her and even tried to curb their swearing in her presence, one instead said, "I'm sick of your Christian attitude."

The employee filed a religious discrimination hostile work environment claim and the Oregon federal district court allowed the case to go forward to a jury, noting a jury needed to decide whether the employer took necessary action to protect the Christian employee.

The court ruled that the employer's and co-worker's lack of hostile intent didn't remove either the employer's or the co-worker's liability. The court additionally distinguished between profanity that directly attacked religious ideas and simple secular epithets that weren't anti-religious statements.

According to the court, those who legally complain must show that the cursing is "severe and pervasive" enough to create a work environment that would be perceived as hostile by a reasonable employee. In other words, if the cussing is frequent or severe, you may have a strong case. In the Oregon case, the fact that the cursing from one employee was aimed directly at the Christian employee proved significant.

According to Anchorage Equal Rights Commission investigator Eric McGhee, the commission initially looks to see if your employer knew you felt you were being harassed. Says McGhee, "As far as the (commission) is concerned, when an employee tells his supervisor workplace cussing is 'offensive' or 'makes me uncomfortable,' they've informed the employer."

The commission then assesses the frequency and severity of the swearing and whether the employee found the comments unwelcome. "Occasionally," says McGhee, "a one-time comment meets the frequency and severity test."

Next, the commission assesses what the employer did to stop the harassment. "If the employer tells the complaining employee, 'Hey, that's just Stan' -- in other words 'put up with it' and the cussing is severe or frequent and religiously hostile," McGhee said, "we believe the employer has failed in their duty to maintain a working environment free from religious harassment."

The commission additionally looks at the employer's safeguards. Does the employer have an anti-harassment policy and a clearly defined reporting procedure? Does the employer investigate and follow up with the employee who complained to let him or her know the investigation's outcome?

McGhee notes that employers who successfully avert commission discrimination complaints or receive a "no substantial evidence finding" are those who take every complaint of harassment -- even the vague ones -- seriously, who investigate and share their findings with the employee who complained and who try to mitigate or stop the employee's exposure to the harassing behavior.

In other words, if it doesn't work to talk with your co-workers or foreman, and even a senior manager turns a deaf ear, you have a solid alternative.


Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co. Inc. Send your questions to her at You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplace


Lynne Curry