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Dropping the F-bomb when you're a CEO: Is it ever OK?


Is it ever right for corporate leaders to publically swear? That's the question being asked this week after one European airline chief executive dropped the f-bomb in an interview while describing the European Union (EU) ruling against the world's biggest tech company.

Never knowingly understated, Michael O'Leary, the boss of budget Irish airline Ryanair, made headlines for saying that the Irish government should tell the EU to "f--k off" after it ruled that the country had to claw back $14.5 billion in back taxes from Apple.

Professor Yehuda Baruch from Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton, co-author of a 2007 study that found swearing in the workplace is not always a bad thing, told CNBC on Friday that the line between what kind of language was appropriate for a CEO was not clear cut.

"When a CEO swears, this suggests something about the organizational culture of his or her firm. It legitimizes the use of profanity, and might be a precedence for other employees. Yet, using swear words adds power to certain messages, grab attention, and for some population may make you 'cool' – if this is what the CEO is looking for," he noted.

F-bombs and B------t

It's not known whether O'Leary wanted to grab attention to his message by using the f-word, but he is certainly not one to mince his words. Over the years, he's made offensive comments about rivals (he said of the British Airways/Iberia merger that it reminded him "of two drunks leaning on each other"), colleagues ("We all employ some lazy ----- who need a kick up the backside") and customers ( "They're not always right and they need to be told so") alike in the past.

Of course, he's not the only executive known for his use of colorful language and there are a number of CEOs known for their choice language – and often having to backtrack because of it.

O'Leary himself has apologized for previous comments about customers, promising them a more "fluffy" airline – probably much to the relief of his public relations department.

Earlier this year, the chief executive of T-Mobile, John Legere, apologized over comments he made in video response to widespread criticism of the company's "Binge On" streaming service.

In one video he called criticism of the service "b-----t" and the critics themselves "jerks." In another video on Twitter, the CEO (who is infamous for his straight-talking) asked one organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that questioned the video streaming service, "Who the f—do you think you are?"

The former CEO of Yahoo, Carol Bartz, made waves when she became chief executive in 2009 by telling staff that she would "drop-kick" anyone that leaked company secrets "to f—king Mars." Having presided over three troubled years of stagnating growth at the company, Bartz was removed from the position in 2011.

In 2013, the board of U.S. multinational Scotts Miracle-Gro reprimanded its CEO and Chairman Jim Hagedorn for using inappropriate language during an analyst and investor day. His offending comments included saying that the company was making "s—t pots of money" or complaining about the "bulls--- in Washington."

Hagedorn was apologetic after being pulled up by the board, saying that while he had "a tendency to use colorful language, I recognize my comments in this case were inappropriate and I apologize."

Michael O'Leary, chief executive officer of Ryanair Holdings Plc
Matthew Lloyd | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Swearing in an official capacity could have an effect within the workplace too, according to Julie Logan, a professor emeritus of entrepreneurship at City University's Cass Business School and expert on leadership education. She told CNBC on Friday that it was inappropriate.

"I do think it is inappropriate because as a leader you lead by example and maybe you don't want staff who represent you swearing in the media or at clients. I think it may also set the wrong tone in the work place," she said, although she added that "(Ryanair's) Michael O'Leary can get away with it. It just gives the company more publicity."

Generation gap

Professor Baruch noted that swearing was becoming more socially acceptable among some social groups, particularly the younger generation.

"Swearing is becoming almost a social norm for younger people, it is frequent in the media, and it gets attention, for sure," he said, noting however that as it was still considered a 'deviant behavior', it "would be considered by a number of people as inappropriate."

"Society judges what is appropriate, what is not, and what is a taboo. It should be borne in mind that the CEO is the 'public face' of the firm. Taboo language should therefore be unacceptable – but not all swearing is considered taboo. In the recent years, swearing has ceased to be a taboo, even for top leaders - more in business, less so in politics," he said.

It's not only corporate leaders that have been caught using un-diplomatic language. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was caught on microphone muttering the words "f—king morons" in Russian during a news conference with his Saudi counterpart in 2015. Meanwhile in the U.S. in 2010 on the signing ceremony of health care reform, the then-Vice-President Joe Biden was caught on microphone telling President Barack Obama that "this is a big f—king deal."

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