Rob Swystun, Pristine Advisers
Is it ever okay for a CEO to swear while talking with shareholders, even if the economy is bad?
Conventional wisdom would say no, it’s never okay to swear in a business setting, particularly when talking to shareholders. But, CEOs are not always conventionally wise and research has shown that when the economy is doing poorly, CEOs are more prone to swearing. … Or maybe it’s CEOs who are prone to swearing just do it more. Antway, CEOs swear more during a recession is the point.
As outlined in an article by Bloomberg’s Jeff Green, a frustrating economy can frustrate top company execs to the point of profanity, but the worst offenders are now trying to tone things down, which, in theory, should be easier now that the economy is on the mend. Although (also in theory) CEO swearing should never have reached a point where it needed to be toned down.
Executive Swearing by the numbers
Let’s look at some of the numbers, provided by Bloomberg’s mining of thousands of conference call transcripts from 2004 to June 2014 for swear words.
The research shows — not unsurprisingly — that swearing in public settings by CEOs increased after the recession hit (spiking in 2009), but is now decreasing, following the same pattern, Green points out, as unemployment and gross domestic product.
“It swings back and forth,” Green quotes Timothy Jay as saying. Jay is a professor in the psychology department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and has written several books on cursing. He studies its effect on society.
Being a way to release tension, it’s not surprising that swearing would increase when the economic environment is poor, Jay said, adding that it’s helpful as a better way to let off steam than physical action.
It’s also an easy way to get people’s attention and get them to listen.
“People are often playing to the audience and in many cases you have a CEO trying to motivate people to change, to get a message across,” Jay said.
And now those numbers:
In the decade 2004 – 2014, the following (censored) words were used the following number of times by top executives in conference calls with shareholders.
- F**k – 17
- S**t – 197
- G*****n – 34
- A*****e – 6
That’s 254 times all together.
Lest you think that every executive is out there swearing up a storm, note that Green points to three particular CEOs as being the most profane (because they’re the only three to use the F-bomb more than once):
- James Hagedorn – Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. (3 F-bombs, 20 total swear words)
- Michael O’Leary – Ryanair Holdings Plc (5 F-bombs, 17 total swear words)
- David Farr – Emerson Electric Co. (2 F-bombs, 10 total swear words)
These three potty-mouthed CEOs are allegedly trying to keep better filters over their filthy maws, at least according to their respective companies’ PR departments.
“It is no secret that Jim uses colorful language at times in his everyday conversations and sometimes he does so in public venues,” Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said in an e-mail to Green. “He has been attempting to moderate his language in recent years, especially in public.”
Hagedorn has also issued at least one apology for his swearing, which it seems like he can’t even control if this excerpt from a Feb. 14, 2012 meeting with investors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York is anything to go by:
“So I’m walking over here this morning, and it looks like a doorman dude or something, but he’s got this huge thing of like roses, and he’s got a big smile on his face,” Hagedorn said during the meeting. “I’m like f—, Valentine’s Day! So my wife is here for the first time. I love you, Dear, Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Yeah, that’s not swearing to add emphasis, that’s someone who can’t differentiate between boardroom and pool hall. (Hint: if everyone is in a suit, that’s probably not F-bomb territory.)
Rather than offering statements and apologies, Ryanair has opted to just not let O’Leary get the opportunity to swear in public while representing the company.
“Michael has taken a step back from day to day PR duties as part of our evolving communications strategy,” Robin Kiely, a Ryanair spokesman, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Emerson, a St. Louis-based maker of air-conditioner compressors and equipment for power plants, seems content to let the CEO apologize for his numerous outbursts. Of the seven calls where he swore, he apologized four times. To put that into perspective, among the total 254 swear words recorded, there were only 22 apologies.
The record for the most uses of one swear word among the Bloomberg data goes to Cypress Semiconductor Corp. Chief Financial Officer Brad Buss, who used the S-word 28 times in total.
Swearing as a trend
While CEO swearing may be a somewhat worrying trend, it seems to reflect the overall trend in America, where cursing is on the rise, according to Marchex Inc., a call analysis and marketing company in Seattle that provides software that helps companies detect swearing on calls with customers.
Based on the analysis of 2 million calls, profanity has risen each year since 2012 said John Busby, senior vice president of the Marchex Institute, which analyzes the data. The S-word is the most common curse overheard in calls to businesses, followed by the F-bomb and its variants.
Keeping things civil
While it may be tempting to just accept that swearing is picking up in the US and therefore CEOs are bound to swear more, there are valid reasons for keeping swearing out of the workplace. For one, it cuts down on other forms of inappropriate behavior, says P.M. Forni, author of the book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct.
As an illustration of just how pervasive swearing has become in culture, Green points to Forni’s shock at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti dropping an F-bomb in June in a public setting to celebrate the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup. (The added irony is that in 2009, the city declared May 13 as “Los Angeles Civility Day.”)
But, since I’m a basketball fan, I’m going to go with a different example of how it’s pervaded general culture by citing the usually statesman-like general manager of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, and his declaration of “F*** Brooklyn” to cap off a fan rally in Toronto just before the Raptors and Brooklyn Nets played Game 1 of their first round NBA playoff series back in April. It shocked many and caused a minor scandal in the NBA until that other scandal came along and almost overshadowed the playoffs themselves.
So, what do you think? Do you think CEO swearing should be stamped out immediately and the offending CEOs should be reprimanded accordingly, or, in light of how pervasive cursing has become in general, is it really no big ******* deal?