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F-Bombs Tolerated in Recession Cause CEOs Trouble Later

By Jeff Green
July 16, 2014 12:01 AM EDT 31 Comments
F-Bombs Tolerated in Recession Cause CEOs Trouble in Recovery
F-Bombs Tolerated in Recession Cause CEOs Trouble in Recovery

The chief executive officer of Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. is no stranger to profanity in his calls with analysts. On May 5, James Hagedorn did something different: After swearing, he apologized.

Bad words have been much in the news recently, with both the mayor of Los Angeles and the CEO of T-Mobile US Inc. using what has become known as the F-bomb. For those who think the increasing use of profanity in public is another sign that the world is going to heck in a handbasket, however, here’s the good news: For executives, tolerance of potty talk is on the wane and their public swearing is on the downswing.

It turns out that public profanity among top executives is sensitive to economic conditions, according to a Bloomberg News review of thousands of CEO calls with investors and analysts from 2004 to last month. It spiked in the aftermath of the recession in 2009 and has been decreasing as the recovery gathers steam over the last couple of years.

The cursing follows the same up and down trajectory as unemployment and gross domestic product, although swearing has a more dramatic path, according to the data.

“It swings back and forth,” said Timothy Jay, a professor in the psychology department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, who has written several books on cursing and studies its effect on society.

Swearing is a tension release, so it’s not surprising it would increase when there is a bad economic environment, Jay said. He said he practices it a lot, too, particularly during golf outings. It might be helpful as a better way to let off steam than physical action, he said.

Steam Release

“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.

A kind of periodic table of salty words -- the F-bomb, the blasphemous GD, the scatalogical S and derogatory term AH -- shows that they were used 254 times by top executives in calls during that decade. They appeared 17, 34, 197 and 6 times, respectively.

To be sure, a majority of CEOs don’t curse in public. In fact, three account for quite a bit of the graphic language. They are kind of a Cursing Hall of F.

Hagedorn, along with Ryanair Holdings Plc Chief Executive Officer Michael O’Leary and Emerson Electric Co. CEO David Farr are the only top executives to use the F-bomb more than once. Hagedorn used that word three times along with the other expletives for a total of 20 swear words. O’Leary followed with five F-bombs among 17 instances, and Farr with two Fs among 10 total that were transcribed.

Tempering Tempers

All three executives have made attempts to temper public displays of such colorful language in the past year, according to their companies.

The Scotts board unanimously supported a reprimand last year of Hagedorn that stemmed from the use of inappropriate language, the company said in a June 3, 2013, statement that didn’t include details of the incident. Three board members resigned from Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts after casting the vote, according to the statement.

“While I have a tendency to use colorful language, I recognize my comments in this case were inappropriate and I apologize,” Hagedorn said in the statement.

Hagedorn, who merged his family’s Miracle-Gro into Scotts in 1995 and took over as CEO in 2001, has often used spicy language, such as this, from a Feb. 14, 2012, introduction to a meeting with investors at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

“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. “I’m like f---, Valentine’s Day! So my wife is here for the first time. I love you, Dear, Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Practicing Restraint

The company acknowledges the shift away from swearing is a work in progress.

“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. “He has been attempting to moderate his language in recent years, especially in public.”

Historically, most controls on swearing have been meant to protect women and children against blasphemy, particularly those enforced starting in about the 15th century in England, Jay said. Today, children are already mimicking adults in their choice of curse words starting around 8 years old, Jay said, based on research published this year on data gathered on 1,187 curse words overheard from children 1 to 12.

Kids’ Swearing

The research shows that S becomes common in child swearing as early as 5 or 6 years old with F showing up later and becoming the top word by ages 11 to 12. Those two words are also the most popular among adults who swear, according to separate research of 3,190 words cataloged by his researchers.

“Every time our culture absorbs a word into common usage, people have to push the envelope even more,” said Melissa Henson, director of grassroots advocacy and education at the Parents Television Council, a group that lobbies against profanity in media.

Ryanair’s O’Leary is well-known for his coarse language and blunt approach to running the Dublin-based discount airline -- and the company has opted to give him fewer opportunities to display those tendencies of late, as part of a broader plan to improve the image of the airline.

O’Leary’s diatribes included railing against government policy, competitors and the weather.

‘Cuddly’ O’Leary

“Michael has taken a step back from day to day PR duties as part of our evolving communications strategy,” Robin Kiely, a spokesman, said in a statement. O’Leary himself, in an e-mail response for this story, wrote: “How dare you call me salty when in fact I’m warm, cuddly, cute and caring, even if a little bit misunderstood at times. Lots of love.”

At Emerson, the St. Louis-based maker of air-conditioner compressors and equipment for power plants, CEO Farr made his mark in the annals of conference call cursing with two particularly strong exchanges. One occurred in February 2013, when he told investors: “We are not a one-trick pony. If I see that in writing one more g--d--- time, I’m going to tear them apart. We are not a one-trick pony, we do well in China, g--d--- it, and I’m not embarrassed by it, but we’re not a g--d--- one trick pony. I apologize for swearing. You guys p--- me off when you write that, if you haven’t figured that out.”

Farr is also one of the few CEOs who routinely apologized for cursing. Of the seven calls where he used expletives, he apologized four times. As a comparison, among the total 254 utterances recorded, there were only 22 apologies.

CEO Apology

“Mr. Farr has always been an outspoken CEO in all his public forums,” Mark Polzin, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. “He realized he clearly crossed the line a couple years back. Consequently, he apologized to his investors, employees, and other attendees and has moved on.”

The record for the most uses of one expletive among the data goes to Cypress Semiconductor Corp. Chief Financial Officer Brad Buss, whose retirement from the chipmaker was announced in April. Buss swore the S-word so many times, 28 in total, that analysts took to quoting it back to him in questions, often catching him unaware he had even used the term, according to transcripts.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the San Jose, California-based company pointed to a statement from CEO T.J. Rodgers when Buss retired. It said, in part, “His contributions and ribald Canadian sense of humor will be sorely missed.”

One Woman

The only woman transcribed using the F-word was Carol Bartz in 2009, when the then-CEO of Yahoo! Inc. talked about “nobody f---ing doing anything” to fix problems at the Web portal company. Bartz was ousted from Sunnyvale, California-based Yahoo in September 2011.

Whatever the trend in conference call cursing, mainstream America isn’t toning down the language, according to Marchex Inc., a call analysis and marketing company in Seattle that provides software helping companies detect swearing on calls with customers. Profanity has risen each year since 2012, based on the analysis of 2 million calls, 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 F and its variants, according to Marchex data, which the company collects to give marketers insight into the quality of interactions with customers.

Slippery Slope

One reason to keep the levels of profanity low in the workplace is that doing that will keep down other inappropriate behavior, said P.M. Forni, author of the book “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” who has been advocating for more politeness for 15 years. He decided to take on civility in society as a cause in 1997 after years teaching Italian literature.

The Civility Initiative that Forni founded at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has spawned hundreds of imitators, he said. His goal is to try to balance the institutional informality of American society against plain rudeness.

He was sensitive in particular to the example of Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles because the city in 2009 declared May 13 “Los Angeles Civility Day.” The mayor used the F-bomb in June while celebrating the Los Angeles Kings hockey team’s capture of the Stanley Cup.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan at jgreen16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net John Brecher, Kevin Miller

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