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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

Obscenity rules: Swear to resist

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Transparency is vital. But some gestures and words are better left unexpressed. Consider the case of Johnny Manziel, aka “Johnny Football.”

During a primetime broadcast a while back, the rookie Cleveland Brown quarterback lost his cool. After persistent taunts from his opponents, he flipped his middle finger at them, a gesture beamed to millions of viewers at home.

Although Manziel is well known for bad-boy behavior, his coach was not pleased. “It does not sit well,” Mike Pettine told the Boston Globe. “It’s disappointing, because what we talk about is being poised and being focused.” Shortly after the incident, Pettine named Brian Hoyer his starting quarterback.

Not only is obscenity in its many forms increasingly common in professional sports, it’s becoming common in the workplace. But financial advisors should take a stand against it. By committing themselves to respectful discourse, they will become a magnet for prospects (and colleagues) who admire professionalism, not only in knowledge, but also in conduct.

Unfortunately, many business and political leaders are traveling the low road. T-Mobile CEO John Legere used the f-word to describe his competitors at AT&T and Verizon. Former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz threatened her team with being dropkicked to “f—–g Mars” if they leaked information to the press. Even Donald Trump, a potential Republican Party presidential candidate, went on a profanity-laced tirade during a Las Vegas political speech. And let’s not forget President Obama’s threat to kick some you-know-what over the BP oil spill.

What’s the big deal? Obscene conduct simply reflects today’s culture, right? People are less polite; language and behavior are coarser; and the penalties for profanity have seemingly vanished. As a financial advisor, why not just swear with the best of them? Because it erodes your reputation, pure and simple.

According to a recent survey, 64 percent of employers said they’d think less of an employee who repeatedly used curse words, and 57 percent said they’d be less likely to promote someone who swore in the office.

In addition to those problems, James V. O’Connor of the Cuss Control Academy says swearing makes people unpleasant to be with. It shows they lack self-control or have a bad attitude. And it makes them come across as immature, ignorant and lacking in character. Add to those disadvantages the exacerbation of incivility and the corruption of the English language.

But perhaps the biggest negative argument is legal. Repeated profanity, along with ridicule or insults, can produce a so-called “hostile workplace.” When unprofessional conduct is directed at a member of a protected class such as women, minorities, or members of various religions, the targets may have grounds to sue under federal and state antidiscrimination laws.

So what to do about swearing at work? If you’re the boss, simply take steps to change the culture: 

  • Prohibit all racial, ethnic, religious and gender-based slurs, as well as slang that describes sexual acts, body parts and bodily functions.
  • Impose disciplinary measures against staff who break the rules.
  • Be a role model by elevating how you express yourself at work. If you engage in vulgarity, how can you expect others to clean up their own acts?
  • If you’re not the boss, tell colleagues swearing offends you and ask them to stop.

Bottom line: Highly-paid football players may get away with obscene antics, but today’s financial advisors don’t have that luxury. Athletes might get benched, but advisors will harm their reputations and potentially lose business as a result.  And who the @#&* needs that?


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