Dining

Salty Language

Swearing on the job may actually be a right for restaurant workers
Photo: star5112 via Flickr
Restaurant Workers

Dropping f-bombs at work is par for the course if you work in a restaurant kitchen. It's not just Gordon Ramsay's schtick. Swearing is considered a natural part of most kitchens' lexicon. That doesn't mean, however, that it's every line cook's right to curse. It's up to every restaurant whether or not bad language is OK or a fireable offense.

With cursing being such an accepted part of life in the kitchen, it seems surprising for a restaurant worker to be fired for swearing. But that's exactly what happened to a Hooters waitress in Texas who was fired on the grounds of swearing and posting negative comments on social media after she disagreed with the outcome of a bikini contest.

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The New York Times reported on the case this past weekend in an article investigating the "limits of labor law." According to Boston College business and law professor Christine Neylon O'Brien, author of the paper, "I Swear! From Shoptalk to Social Media: The Top Ten National Labor Relations Board Profanity Cases," restaurants that often fire employees for swearing are in fact using profane language as a guise for something else.

In the Hooters case, the waitress lost her job for swearing, but the real reason was that she was "discussing working conditions." Since Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act permits workers to discuss matters like wages, hours and unionization, Hooters couldn't legally fire the waitress for talking about working conditions. The restaurant blamed her for swearing. But discussing working conditions is a protected activity. So if workers swear while engaging in this protected activity, they're off the hook. In other words, they can't be fired for swearing if they're talking about their hours.

In the end, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled that the waitress's termination was unlawful and ordered the restaurant to rehire her with back pay.

Still, O'Brien concludes that there are limits to getting away with swearing while engaging in this protected activity. If an employee's language is especially "threatening, violent or insubordinate," the law may not save him or her. Furthermore, with the growing trend toward open kitchens, swearing might be off the table altogether.

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