When Workplace Profanity Crosses the Line into a Hostile Work Environment Claim

​While most would consider cursing in the workplace unprofessional, it is generally not unlawful. That is, unless an employee can tie it to a protected status. An Oregon court has recently ruled that a jury can hear an employee’s religious discrimination claim that involves the use of profanity in the workplace. Griffin v. City of Portland (D. Or. 2013).

Griffin, who works in Portland’s Parks and Recreation Office, is a self-described devout Christian. She is alleging that her coworkers created a hostile work environment by using profanity in her presence despite her complaints. She contends that some of the cursing included references to Jesus Christ and God, which she considers blasphemous. She also claims that her team leader made pejorative comments about Christian-related items on her desk and her religious attitude.

Normally, profanity in the workplace is a human resources issue rather than a legal issue. It will be interesting to see whether Griffin can successfully tie the profanity to her religion and how a jury will rule. It is a good reminder, however, for human resource professionals to take all complaints seriously, even those that do not, on their face, involve unlawful conduct. What starts as an employee relations issue could easily turn into a hostile work environment claim if not addressed early.