Commentary & Opinion

In Harassment Cases, the Context of Profanities Matters (But Only Sometimes)

By Jon Hyman

May. 22, 2019

Editor’s note: This post contains extremely graphic language.

Why is everyone suddenly using the C-word?” asks Stan Carey in The Guardian. He blames Game of Thrones (video very NSFW — you’ve been warned).

Assuming Stan’s correct, and more people are becoming more comfortable openly using this generally considered highly offensive and taboo word, how should you react if your employees start using it among each other? Swiftly and decisively, that’s how.

Consider Reeves v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, which decided the issue of whether vulgar language to which all employees (male and female) are equally exposed is actionable as sexual harassment.

The court made a clear distinction between general, gender-nonspecific swear words, such as shit and fuck, (maybe improper, but not necessarily unlawful) as compared to gender-specific epithets such as bitch, whore, and the granddaddy of them all, cunt (unlawful harassment).

[T]he context may illuminate whether the use of an extremely vulgar, gender-neutral term such as “fucking” would contribute to a hostile work environment. “Fucking” can be used as an intensifying adjective before gender-specific epithets such as “bitch.” In that context, “fucking” is used to strengthen the attack on women, and is therefore relevant to the Title VII analysis. However, the obscene word does not itself afford a gender-specific meaning. Thus, when used in context without reference to gender, “fuck” and “fucking” fall more aptly under the rubric of general vulgarity that Title VII does not regulate. …

[W]ords and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff. … It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as … “cunts,” to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way. The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically: “and you are a ‘bitch,’ too.” …

“Cunt,” referring to a woman’s vagina, is the essence of a gender-specific slur. …

The social context at C.H. Robinson detailed by Reeves allows for the inference to be drawn that the abuse did not amount to simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents, but rather constituted repeated and intentional discrimination directed at women as a group, if not at Reeves specifically. It is not fatal to her claim that Reeves’s co-workers never directly called her a “bitch,” a “fucking whore,” or a “cunt.” Reeves claims that the offensive conduct occurred “every single day,” and that the manager “accepted and tolerated that same behavior” over her repeated complaints. If C.H. Robinson tolerated this environment, it may be found to have adopted “the offending conduct and its results,” just as if the employer affirmatively authorized it.

Thus, while general vulgarities are not typically actionable as harassment, severe or pervasive gender-specific words or phrases are actionable even if the words are not specifically directed at one employee, but are merely generally used in the workplace. The aforementioned “c-word” is the perfect example.

The takeaway for employers? Words are sometimes not just words, and businesses should respond to complaints about coarse or vulgar language as they would to any other complaint of harassment. An employer cannot just assume that words are harmless and ignore the complaint. And if you do, you’re just being a … .

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at


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