In this day and age, potty-mouthed CEOs should know better


Published Jun 16, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Profane language can be a useful tool for ambitious executives, enabling them to express the power of their convictions and the seriousness of their cause.

It can also backfire, as the chief executive officer of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., Jim Hagedorn, found out last week. Hagedorn was reprimanded for his use of inappropriate language; three other board members of the lawn-care company resigned because of the controversy. While it is unclear what remarks led to the reprimand and resignations, Hagedorn had a habit of employing colorful language when speaking with reporters, shareholders and the public.

The boundaries of acceptable public and workplace discourse have long been contested. While many executives have had a penchant for salty language, public profanity has only recently found uneasy acceptance in business culture. Execs who try to motivate employees and other corporate stakeholders with tough talk sometimes enjoy significant success, but they also risk immediate legal liability and the future judgment of history.

It isn’t hard to look back on the Gilded Age and find examples of rapacious and mean-mouthed executives. Yet, in an age when profanity wasn’t fit for print, the content of their statements was often more offensive than how they said it.

The robber barons probably used plenty of explicit language in private, but through the early part of the 20th century, profanity had no place in public discourse.

When dirty words cropped into public view, the moral guardians stepped in. Responding to the use of rough language during World War II, Norman Vincent Peale, a minister, lamented to The New York Times, “The public men of other years may have cussed plenty in private, but they had the good taste to keep it out of public address.”

Public expletives have become more common, and executives have moved to leverage, or perhaps weaponize, foul language to their benefit.

In the 1980s and ’90s, especially, a new breed of tough-talking executives rose to prominence. For turnaround artists and corporate raiders who found value in companies by stripping down the workforces, streamlining operations and selling unprofitable divisions, ruthless bravado and acerbic language were often their stock-in-trade.

Albert Dunlap, or “Chainsaw Al” as he was unaffectionately known, epitomized this aggressive style. The title of Dunlap’s memoir, “Mean Business,” conveys the tone he set. In 1996, in his first meeting as chairman of Sunbeam Corp., “he just yelled, ranted, and raved. He was condescending, belligerent, and disrespectful,” according to a Sunbeam executive, Richard Boynton.

It wasn’t his abrasiveness or profanity that brought Dunlap down. Instead, it was the questionable accounting that misrepresented Sunbeam’s revenue; Dunlap can never again serve as an executive of a public company.

This isn’t to suggest Dunlap was unique in his profanity; innumerable memoirs and accounts of business culture recount expletive-laden rants by managers, executives and employees.

Still, while public profanity seems to have become more common among executives, countervailing trends have worked to check its spread.

Most broadly, the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and ’70s marked racial and gender slurs as beyond the bounds of acceptable business discourse. Harassment and discrimination lawsuits stemming from inappropriate speech made slips of the tongue expensive errors.

In 1999, David Howard, a top aide to District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, was forced to resign after using the word “niggardly” to describe the city’s tight budget. By using a synonym for miserly that sounds similar to a racial slur, Howard’s remarks sparked a major national debate.

It seems unlikely that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s reprimand of Hagedorn will generate a similar outcry, but it may remind executives to mind their p’s and q’s.