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How to Use the 'F You' Rule at Your Company -- Legally

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 03, 2016 6:59 AM

The founder and CEO of Sam Adams wants his employees to tell him, "F*** you" -- except without the asterisks. Under the F You Rule, "it's okay to say f*** you to anybody else in the company," CEO Jim Koch explains. The rule is just one of the "business lessons learned over a beer or two" he covers in his new book.

So, should other companies follow suit? Can you start tossing expletives around the office without opening yourself up to legal issues?

From Yes Man to "F You, Man"

The point of the rule is pretty straightforward: encourage open and honest communication by breaking down barriers in what people can and can't say to each other, even when it comes to potentially offensive language.

An office where someone can tell their supervisor "f*** you; that's not even possible," is an office where employees will be more willing to address issues frankly, to say "hey, this might not be the best strategy" or "I don't know if those are actually accurate numbers." The cursing is just the entry point into a forthright discussion.

Or so the theory goes.

Our guess is that the F You Rule is more like "unlimited vacation" or "paternity leave" -- perks that are offered, but which no one really takes advantage of. I can't imagine even the biggest Masshole at Sam Adams telling his boss to stick it where the sun don't shine.

Some F'ing Complications

But, we're not talking about the wisdom of the rule here, we're talking about potential legal complications. The first concern that should jump to mind is the creation of a hostile work environment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act all prohibit harassment in the workplace, where that harassment is based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, ability, and, under the EEOC's most recent interpretations, sexuality and gender identity.

Now, the F word isn't racist or homophobic. The F word is cool with everyone and everything. Indeed, it's so accepting that it's one of the most versatile words in the English language and one of the language's only real infixes.

But racists and homophobes can use the F word just like all the rest of us. And office where "f*** you" is a common phrases will more easily resemble the work environments that "a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive" -- thus supporting a discriminatory harassment claim.

The second major concern would be consistent treatment. You could find yourself subject to discrimination claims should a manager, for example, laugh off a male subordinate's "f*** you," but not a female one's.

Strong policies around such strong language might reduce these risks. But are they risks that are really worth taking? We doubt it.

So, if the CEO wants has a few too many beers and wants to run an F You Rule by the legal team, we'd suggest cautioning against it. Prepare to be told to "f*** off," though.

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