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The Foul-Mouthed Birds

January 31, 2024

Don Walsh

Photo credit: Soggydan Dan Bennett, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For those of you who have not heard about the plight of the swearing parrots at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, the Zoo obtained five foulmouthed birds several years ago. Much to the Zoo’s shock, it discovered that the birds had an adverse impact on the group of birds with whom they were placed and even seemed to be encouraging other birds to start swearing at guests. The Zoo is now trying a new tactic and split the parrots up and placed them into larger groups of birds who do not share this racy characteristic, hoping to combat bad behavior with the influences of friendly, G-rated parrots.

This is very similar to the tactic we have seen some employers take with outspoken workers in the workplace. When there is a particularly vocal disgruntled employee, some employers have chosen to move employees in an effort to minimize the impact the employee has on the greater workforce. Although this may be acceptable under the proper circumstances, it really depends on what the employee is griping about.

The National Labor Relations Act, which applies to all employers, has made great strides over the past few years to ensure that employees who are swearing while collectively complaining about working conditions or other terms of employment are protected from retaliation. Employers need to carefully evaluate the context of the swearing and whether dispersing the group will resolve the complaints or only permit the dissenting views to be sown among employees otherwise content with the working conditions. In addition, whether moving these employees is viewed as retaliation will really depend on the justification for the movement.

Assume the employee is not complaining about working conditions or terms of employment and is just one of those people who swears or complains frequently or has a disposition that just doesn’t work well with others -- like Holden Caulfield (everyone is a “phony”) or George Costanza (“I'm Disturbed, I'm Depressed, I'm Inadequate – I've Got It All!”). Positive morale is an important issue that most employers fight to maintain and having a negative employee can have a huge impact on culture. Unlike Lincolnshire Wildlife Park, putting up large signs alerting co-workers that they might be exposed to bad language or a poor disposition is not really a good option.

Like the Lincolnshire Zoo’s experiment, having the employee work with a different group of employees may ultimately minimize any negative impact or assist the employee in changing their patterns. Employers could also pair the awkward employee with an exuberant and overly-positive employee (we all have one) who may help the employee to adopt a different outlook. An employer could also give the employee an opportunity to be part of planning something to build morale for all employees is also another positive approach to dealing with this type of personality.

Another approach is that HR could try talking to the person and seeing if there is anything HR can do to help improve the employee’s disposition. Making an employee feel like they have been heard or simply being aware of the perceptions of their demeanor may create change. HR needs to be ever vigilant, however, to a) not be a doctor or therapist (unless they are licensed as such) and b) listen for any indications that the employee identifies they are suffering from a mental health issue and requests an accommodation. As the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently noted, just having a medical condition is not sufficient; the employee must identify that an accommodation is needed to address the health issue to permit the employee to continue performing their job.

Ultimately, if the employee’s sour disposition is not legally protected and is impacting other employees or is affecting the employee’s own productivity, it may simply be time to show them the door. Not every parrot can be retrained.

In case you were wondering, you can follow the parrots here.

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