Last reviewed 23 January 2019

The founder of Papa John’s resigned because of a single use of the n-word. Gudrun Limbrick considers whether resignation or dismissal is the right response to using a single word which, in some arenas, is in common use.

Papa John’s founder resigned his role in the company for reportedly using the n-word in a phone conversation. He resigned after news of the slur was featured in Forbes, the business magazine. Are there things we can say which are so offensive in the workplace that the person has to be removed immediately from their jobs? And to what extent is it the employer’s job to police how we talk at work?

John Schnatter founded Papa John’s, the pizza company, in 1984. So synonymous was he with the brand that he himself was known as Papa John. So successful was the company that it has been one of the three largest pizza restaurant chains in the world. In 2017, there was controversy about his views on some National Football League players not standing for the US national anthem. Papa John’s was a sponsor of the National Football League at the time. As a result of the scandal, John Schnatter resigned as CEO of the company.

In 2018, it was reported that, in a telephone conference call about the controversy, John Schnatter had used the n-word, allegedly saying ”Colonel Sanders called blacks [the n-word] and never faced public outcry”. When this conversation became public, John Schnatter resigned as chair of the board.

This can perhaps be seen as an extreme example of swearing at work. First, John Schnatter himself was a public figure with great interest shown in his political, and other, views. As such, he had the power to severely impact on the company’s public image. Second, the n-word is not simply a swear word, it is a strong racial slur with extremely negative and offensive connotations.

On the other hand, the slur was made in what could have been assumed to be a relatively private conversation with no indications that it had been overheard by anyone other than those intended to be in the conversation. It has also been reported that he has complained that he was provoked into using the racial slur and that the full context of the conversation was not taken into account. He claimed that he had earlier said that he would not work with Kanye West because of his use of the n-word.

Is swearing always bad?

The popular view of swearing in the workplace is mixed. For some, it is a useful release of stress — a normal way of venting about the frustrations of the day. And the words used are relatively commonplace, so much so that they are not always regarded as swearing. After all, swearing is very much part of the dynamic nature of language and, as such, much more a part of general vocabularies than it used to be. It is such a habit for some people, that stopping swearing would in itself be problematic. For others, swearing is, by its very nature, offensive, shocking and upsetting regardless of who says it, the words used and the intention therein. Amid these very different views, it is in the employer’s interest, at the very least, to encourage a harmonious working environment.

For employers, there are three factors which may influence their response to swearing in the workplace:

  1. The nature of the swearing

    Swearing can simply be the use of a word that is popularly considered to be a swear word as emphasis or in frustration. However, swear words can also have offensive connotations and may be racially or sexually offensive. They may (whether the user is aware of it or not) be offensive to women, or men, or members of a particular race or religion. As such they may be considered to be discrimination which is disciplinary offence. Swearing in front of, or about, a particular individual may also be part of a bullying or harassment campaign which, again, should be a disciplinary offence.

  2. The context of the swearing

    Swearing in a private phone call which cannot be overheard may be viewed as being qualitatively different to swearing loudly in an open plan office. Similarly, swearing when a person stubs their toe might be viewed differently from swearing when someone fails to hand over a piece of paper quickly enough. Also, if swearing is commonplace in an office, it would not be appropriate to discipline a single individual for their foul mouth. Some places of work should not tolerate swearing: schools, for example, have to be swearing-free zones for obvious reasons.

  3. The impact on the reputation of the company

    Swearing in front of customers, or partner organisations, can bring a company into disrepute. An employer may feel that this warrants disciplinary procedures.

If an employer does decide that swearing does warrant disciplinary procedures, the correct procedures must be followed as with any other disciplinary action. The sudden and shocking nature of swearing does not change how measured the employer’s response has to be.

Acting on swearing

Monitoring swearing is, of course, not as straightforward as it used to be. Private mobile phones mean that people take personal calls at work (even if only in their break times) and swearing may play a part in these non-work conversations. Similarly, swearing can also be a part of emails or conversations on social media, whether or not these are work-related. If the aim is not to have swearing in the workplace, private conversations in the workplace will be a part of this.

In an ideal world, an employer will have a policy about swearing that details what is acceptable and what is not acceptable so that people are aware of how far they can take swearing, if it is tolerated at all. This not only makes things clearer for employees, but it will help employers to react appropriately if a complaint is made about someone’s swearing. To this end, a policy should err on the side of intolerance, although an employer may feel they are being prudish. Swearing tends to be “catching”’. When one person swears, others tend to follow suit and it can escalate quickly as they warm to their swearing. This, in turn, can lead to complaints of offensive language.

An employer has a responsibility to ensure that its policy on harassment, bullying and discrimination is sufficiently robust to come into play if offensive language is being used in this fashion. It would also be useful to have a robust policy on swearing so that employees have the confidence to know that if they have a complaint about language, it will be dealt with appropriately.

However, that being said, language is a very fluid thing. Different words mean different things to different people, and it is true to say that people do not always understand the meanings or connotations of the words they use, whereas other people may be highly sensitive to them. An employer needs to explore this as part of any complaint about offensive language and bring in some flexibility where appropriate. Awareness training may also be useful in some more tricky cases.