Sunday, May 24, 2009


A reader from Colorado is hearing more than he wants to hear.

He drives a company car, and the vehicle is equipped with a citizens' band radio to allow drivers to communicate with company headquarters and with other drivers. It is supposed to be used strictly for business, and in particular the company has a clear policy prohibiting "cussing" or the telling of any sort of "sexual jokes" over the CB radio.

"But they will not enforce these rules," he writes. "Do I have to continually listen to foul language in my workplace if I find it offensive? Whom do I talk to about this?"

There is a difference between etiquette and ethics, though many situations straddle that boundary. In many contexts this would simply be an issue of etiquette: It's rude for anyone to indulge in obscene language or offensive jokes within the hearing of anyone who might object. If my reader was sitting in a bar and was being subjected to objectionable conversation from the next table, he could rightly condemn the offenders as rude.

In this case, though, there's an added component that makes this an ethical issue, and his fellow drivers' conduct not merely rude but wrong.

A workplace is not a bar, and the public airwaves are not any old workplace. What goes over the radio -- including over CB frequencies -- in the United States is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and its provisions about "permissible communications" for CB users clearly prohibit "obscene, profane or indecent words, language or meaning."

By using profanity and telling obscene jokes over their CB radios, my reader's co-workers are not only being rude to him and to who knows how many others within range of their transmissions, but also they are probably in violation of FCC regulations. The penalties for such violations range from cease-and-desist orders to hefty fines or imprisonment. And because they are doing this as representatives of their company, they are exposing the company to potential liability as well, the way a casual obscenity uttered by the singer Bono on live television got NBC in trouble, though nobody suggested that the network had caused his remark or even had known it was coming.

By using the company's own radios to place it in jeopardy, his co-workers are being not only rude but also, yes, unethical.

For that reason, my reader shouldn't have to wait for the FCC to intervene in his situation. Since the company itself is at risk because of this conduct, it should enforce its own policy against such misuse of company-owned CB radios.

The right thing for my reader to do is to tell his supervisor that, while he himself finds such utterances offensive, he is also concerned that they are placing the company in legal jeopardy. If his supervisor is one of the offenders, he should report his concerns to the company's human-resources department.

In either case, he is under no obligation to list the names of those who might be violating company policy. If company bosses want to know, they can tune in like anybody else.

The right thing for the company to do is to address his concerns. It should begin by monitoring the radio frequency on which company dispatches are made. The company should also make it clear to everyone who uses a company CB radio that monitoring is ongoing and that infractions of this company policy will not be tolerated, not only because they could result in hefty government fines but also because they are inappropriate in any workplace and shows a lack of respect for co-workers.

If the company refuses to address the issue, it should be ashamed. Furthermore, in that case my reader and others at the company would be fully within their rights to report the behavior to the FCC.

Whatever happened to the company thereafter would be its own fault for not living up to its own policies.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Charlie Seng said...

Well, we're getting into a bit of a touchy subject. Without further explanation, there are a lot of unknowns in this example. My first reaction is, is the correspondent working with a bunch of yahoos whose everyday language is obcene? Is this a business or a place where obscene jokes and/or profanity is common, let alone over the phone? My next reaction would be, what is he or she doing working for a company whose employees are conducting themselves in a manner so unbecoming in any employee group? Or, is the correspondent stretching the actual situation or the type who would shrink away if an occasional profanity was spoken? The added part of this story is the obscenities are allegedly spoken over a company phone and Jeffrey is right, that by itself is a no-no. The only workplace I've ever been where obcenities were used was in the Army and you either took part of stayed out of it, as you saw fit. I still say this example sounds a little over the top and somewhat improbable. I'd like to know more about this total situation before being able to give an intelligent answer.