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@!$% My CEO Says: Conference Call Cursing

Key Takeaways

The office loudmouth isn’t the only one swearing at work. A few executives have let an expletive—or eight—fly in public, according to transcripts analyzed by the AI-powered financial search engine Sentieo. Nick Mazing returns to give us the real shi—er, scoop.  

 

Season 3, Episode 13: @!$% My CEO Says | Transcript

Steve Soter: Hello, and welcome to Off the Books, where we surf the uncharted waters of accounting, finance, risk, and wherever else the waves take us. This episode is brought to you by Workiva, the risk, reporting, and compliance platform that simplifies your complex work and organizes your closet, which I swear is making my shirts smaller. Check it out at workiva.com/podcast. My name is Steve Soter, accounting enthusiast and Diet Coke aficionado. I'm looking forward to debiting a great conversation and having you with us. I'm also happy to have Catherine Tsai joining me. Catherine, can you please tell the fine folks who you are?

Catherine Tsai: I'm not an accountant or Diet Coke aficionado, but I like asking questions, learning new things and writing about them later. So I'm here to learn.

Steve: Well, thank you, Catherine. So we came across this article from Sentieo about the rise of swearing on conference calls, and we got to thinking like, Really? Is that a thing? Maybe call me stodgy or just boring. But honestly, Catherine, this was a shock to me.

Catherine: Well, Steve, based on the report, it's not just your mom who's dropping expletives. Of course, our friend Nick Mazing was on top of this, so we brought him in to tell us what's going on. If you're a regular listener of the podcast, you know Nick works for Sentieo, an AI-powered business search engine. I was sorely disappointed to find out Nick wasn't searching for the F word all day for Sentieo's report, since Sentieo digitally bleeps out the words on transcripts.

Steve: And we'll tell our listeners that although we won't be using any expletives in this episode, we will be making reference to some expletives, so parents of younger listeners should definitely be aware. Well, Nick, this whole thing is hysterical. Why am I just learning about this? And what made your team start to look at this report in the first place?

Nick Mazing: It was very roundabout. So I noticed one big bank CEO made a comment that I read about in the news, and I went to look it up in the transcript. And I saw that in the transcript actually, the word was—it's an expletive rather than the actual word that was in the media. So I decided to see what the trends are in transcripts overall. And lo and behold, 2021 was a record year for transcripts—and we're talking about quarterly conference calls, shareholder meetings, bank industry conferences—it was a record year for transcripts that contain expletives.

Catherine: How many people have been using expletives in their earnings calls?

Nick: It's still a relatively small number versus the number of publicly traded companies out there. So last year we saw 166 transcripts that contained expletives. And this is out of a database that covers around 9,000 publicly traded companies with English language conference calls. So. And you know, if you think about your average publicly traded company, you have, let's say, in the United States, we have four transcripts, you know, for every quarterly call. And then maybe the AGM, the shareholders meeting, and a couple of bank conferences, right. So you're looking at tens of thousands of transcripts per year that are generated, and we're talking about 166 inside of those tens of thousands. So in general, people are still pretty stiff about it, but it's growing.

Catherine: And who's been saying these things?

Nick: Mostly management teams.

Catherine: Give me some names. Come on.

Nick: There is a reporter from the Financial Times who did publish the top transcripts that contained expletives. They do cluster. So in other words, there is absolutely no random spread in that. So for example, there is a European airline CEO who is extremely well-known for the crazy advertisements they do, the crazy comments he makes in the media. As you might expect, that company's transcripts are towards the top of the list. Stateside, there was a telecom executive at a major telecom company who's kind of a character. He's still a charactor on Twitter. But when he was a CEO, a lot of their transcripts also scored towards the top. And then there is a newer player in the crypto space. That transcript popped up with a pretty heavy load with expletives last year, but I'm not going to name names.

Catherine: And what kind of expletives are we talking about? Is it like ,#$% or @#%

Nick: In some cases you can make out because it says holy [expletive] right? Or pretty [expletive] good. So you can make those out. And in other cases, it is a little bit more ambivalent because they could have said a certain expletive that indicates something that is, let's say, negative, but that would have been worded in a variety of ways. Like something is a bad business, you can say that in many ways.

Steve: So Nick, let me get this straight. I know the Sentieo report has it bleeped out for lack of a better word. But when you go to the actual transcript itself that might be on the company's website, or maybe it was filed with the SEC, and I want to ask about that in a second, does it actually have the word as it was spoken, or is there some kind of editing that goes along with that as well? So again, you just have to make out what it is.

Nick: So in our case, it's edited out.

Steve: It's a PG report. It's a kid-friendly report. We appreciate that.

Nick: But there are certain transcript sources that actually don't censor those things out. And you know, you end up seeing it sometimes in SEC filings, like you said.

Steve: So, let's talk about SEC filings for a second there, because putting myself in the position of, you know, having done SEC reporting for a long time, to my knowledge, we never had any, at least the companies that I worked at, but I couldn't imagine somebody intentionally using expletives in a 10-K or a registration statement or whatever. But I wonder if in your research, did you pick up on any of that?

Nick: Yes. Strangely enough, there are actually more expletives in the SEC filings than there are in transcripts. The way they come in—so the first thing I did immediately, I searched for expletives, right, in SEC filings. So let's say if you look at the, let's say, a SPAC merger transaction, right? I mean, you've got many, many of those. When I look, some companies will file transcripts as a part of the merger documentation, right? There's a 425. And so, they might be using the same sources that we use for transcripts. It pops up as the word "expletive." However, not all companies do that. So you know, thankfully, you know, I'm at liberty to do this at work, and I'm, you know, searching for certain words. They do pop up in some transcripts. They do pop up. And in some cases, you may have a direct quote from somebody in a lawsuit that was attached to an 8-K or something, so that does pop up. In some cases, they do pop up in maybe media articles that were attached to a filing. So, for example, sometimes companies, let's say again, back to the SPAC merger 425s, you may see that a company's filing a media article with a CEO interview or something like that, or some kind of a write-up in the media as a 425, right. And that is completely uncensored not able to modify what was actually in the press. Right. There is mentions of expletives, a little bit more boring. Although broadcast companies discuss regulations around expletives. They don't list them. But you know the word "expletive" is mentioned around that. And if you take it a step further, you know, years ago, there was an over-the-counter adult content studio that was filing with the SEC in their 10-Ks. They do go quite a bit into explaining what they consider mainstream adult content. Right? And you know, I think they went bankrupt or something. There hasn't been a 10-K since like 2012, but it is there. It exists.

Steve: Well, OK. And I was leading the witness just a little bit because you and I talked about that, and I was putting myself in the position of this financial reporting professional, you know, I went to years in school, credentialed whatever. They're having to describe a business, an adult content business with some offensive language, which is sort of necessary to describe the business itself. I couldn't imagine what situation that would be like for that person to have to work through that. I mean, I glanced at the 10-K. I'm a little embarrassed to say that. That was not a PG 10-K. I mean, that definitely would have had a stronger rating on that.

Nick: I agree, but that's, you know, those entities do exist. In that case, it was actually publicly traded. So you have SEC filings with language that your jaw might drop if you're used to reading SEC filings.

Steve: I may have blushed a time or two. I'll definitely tell you that.

Catherine: Steve, did HR reach out after you did research for this episode?

Steve: Well, here's what's so interesting about that. This is a whole other thread that we can pull on here is that Edgar, which for our audience is basically the SEC system that they used to collect all of these filings. You want to file something to the SEC, you need some software. Workiva provides that incidentally, but you need to to file that with EDGAR, and it becomes this huge repository. These filings live in Edgar forever. But I've actually heard that Edgar is one of the largest sources of the dark web. I say that in air quotes, meaning you can't really search Edgar by Google or any mainstream search engines. So, no, HR didn't contact me because I was on Edgar. For all they knew, I was looking at some technical accounting disclosure or something. I mean, it's actually really interesting.

Catherine: Well, what about trends in company performance? Nick, do you find that bad performance brings more curse words or the opposite?

Nick: 2021 wasn't a bad year for corporates. So, no. I did look, and in fact, it is more of a personal preference, right? So if you look at, let's say, in the United States, there is a furniture retailer chain where the CEO has been hyper successful, and you know, he pops up quite often, right? Let's say we look at again, that European airline, most of what happens with the business is completely out of their control, right? COVID restrictions, oil prices, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It's completely out of their control, so I think it's a little bit more irrelevant. But on the other hand, you know, speaking about language, there is a lot of interest in what kind of language appears in filings that could be indicative of future — You know, one thing that I looked at, I looked at 2017 10-Ks that contained the words fully cooperating or cooperating fully. And there were some real disasters on that list, right? Because obviously it's a little bit like, you know, the company updates guidance, msci lowers guidance. The company raises guidance, raises guidance. So when you're fully cooperating, I mean, what else are you going to do, right? But when you are fully cooperating, chances are there is some issues there, and that's a little bit of a red flag. And you know, people do run studies on that to see. But I personally have not seen anything related to expletives being indicative of good or bad performance.

Steve: This podcast is fully cooperating with all FCC decency requirements.

Catherine: And we are fully cooperating with our sponsor. We'll take a quick commercial break, and we'll be back with Nick Mazing.

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Catherine: We are back with Nick Mazing from Sentieo talking about their recent report on expletives in earnings calls.

Steve: So one other thing that was really interesting, Nick, and I noticed this. After you and I talked about this report, I actually noticed it myself on LinkedIn. But there was a ton of social media discussion and chatter about the appropriateness of, you know, swearing in a earnings call. But even in the office in general, and I think we want to ask about that too, but tell us a little bit about kind of that social media firestorm. It sounded like this thing really got some legs.

Nick: Yeah, it was. The paper just took a life on its own, but I think people are just—it's a subject that appeals to many people. It was picked up. There was an article in Business Insider about it. Was an article in Investor Relations magazine about it. Got picked up by LinkedIn News, which is a very interesting distribution channel, right? Because it's essentially a repository of white collar workers. So they linked to the paper and they ran a poll with, the last time I looked, it was almost 40,000 responses, whether swearing is appropriate at work or not. And they always have the option of show me the results. So when you exclude that, 44 percent said yes, 40 percent said no. And 16 percent said it's fine, but not for me. Meaning other people can do it. Just like it was a very even split between yes or no. And then there were hundreds of comments of people just slugging it out, whether it's appropriate or not, like it was 600 the last time I looked, which is it's just a surreal experience. And you know, some people want to connect with me on LinkedIn and all that. It just took a life on its own. It really did. And you know, if anybody's interested in the paper, it's on our website. It's ungated. You don't even need to enter an email or anything like that. I'm personally very annoyed when I have to enter an email. Double annoyed when somebody emails when they have a white paper, that I have to go in and enter an email. You already have my email. This white paper is completely ungated. Go and read it on our website.

Steve: I can put in a plug for the report. It is very interesting. You can get it on Sentieo's website. I would highly recommend people checking it out. It is PG-rated as well, so you don't need to worry about your HR department reaching out to you after you start looking at that report.

Nick: And all the quotes are anonymous still. So we actually don't list who said it. I mean, I know because I wrote it, but obviously it's across geographies. It's across the industries. I think the main point was that, yeah, it's a small trend, but it's actually growing.

Catherine: How do the two of you feel about swearing in the workplace?

Nick: This is an extremely self-incriminating question, so I'm going to plead the fifth.

Steve: Well, look, I will admit I'm probably, stodgy might be a little strong, but you know, I generally try to keep it clean. I do find just my own experience having worked at many companies, some of which I mean, you know, the language would just almost make your skin curl and some was very, you know, clean and PG rated. I think a lot of that stuff kind of has to be taken in context. It kind of depends on, well, who are you talking to, and what is it that you're talking about, and what is the environment? I mean, I would never, of course, you know, use expletives in the boardroom. But I've certainly heard plenty of expletives used in a boardroom. And in that context, I don't want to say it was appropriate or right, but I don't think anybody thought oddly or weird that, you know, this person had swore at that time. I don't know, Nick. I realize you're not going to speak for yourself, but I'm certain you've had similar observations in your work experience.

Nick: Yes. Yes, so in general, I think if let's say, in your average fund situation, people are extremely direct. Right, I mean, there is very little sugarcoating when you know, you're basically a number on a scoreboard, right? And everybody's focused on certain goals. With people whom you know, obviously people are, you know, some people, that's a personal style, just like we see with certain CEOs use these words a lot more. Right? In a formal commercial setting, you know, I've never heard it, but you know, maybe others have.

Steve: What do you think, Catherine, I'm certain you have an opinion as well.

Catherine: Oh, well, I think like you were saying, in certain situations, I think curse words are probably part of the environment. I think it's part of the official language in newsrooms, for example. And I've seen a couple of swear words pop up in The Wall Street Journal and other publications now. So I don't know, maybe things are changing. What about who should feel comfortable swearing in the workplace? Who can do it?

Nick: Well, I mean, you know the demographics of your average CEO, right? So that's obviously one answer. But in general, I know that there are people who, for whatever reason, might not feel comfortable doing that because let's say they're underrepresented or they're new or they're younger and so on. But I think from what I see on the calls, it is a typical CEO who uses that.

Steve: Yeah, I think that you bring up a good point there about somebody who's younger or new to the organization, you know, maybe you curse like a sailor, but you show up on your first day and you're not sure how that's going to be received. So, you know, you kind of get a lay of the land first, kind of see what happens with everybody else you interact with. And, you know, I feel like sometimes that has as much to do with tenure as anything else. I don't know, Catherine, what do you think? You start laying down the swears on day one?

Catherine: I suppose if you're not in a position of power yet, it might feel a little uncomfortable to be dropping F-bombs everywhere.

Steve: Well, and it would be interesting. You could almost have an ESG conversation because nothing today can not be tied somehow to ESG. But you know, who gets away with it? Who gets away with it? If you were, for example, you know, let's say a minority, does that put you at a disadvantage if you were using a bunch of expletives? Or is that used as a way to almost fit in if it was a, you know, a heavy, swear-laden environment? I don't know. It's an interesting question.

Catherine: Let's experiment in the workplace tomorrow, Steve.

Steve: There you go. I look forward to it. Speaking of experimentation, Nick, that does lead us to our closing question of the day. We are talking about bleeping out expletives. And so Catherine and I were musing, you have been on the podcast many times, which we appreciate very much. If you could bleep out one thing from one of your previous episodes at Off the Books, what would it be?

Nick: I do have a thing. So if you remember, last time we were talking about supply chains. It was the Q3 review. We were discussing buying the gifts early and things like that because of what was happening and so on. So I said two things. Number one, that my wife and I don't buy gifts for each other and that we had already purchased the holiday gifts for the kid with the Lego simply because we wanted to get ahead of the supply chain disasters that were expected at the time. So my wife decided to listen to the podcast on speaker, and literally within, you know, when it came to that part of the conversation, she got very upset at me that I have told the world that we don't buy gifts for each other, and our kid heard that we got him his gifts already. So we lost months of leverage regarding his behavior because he heard the gifts are already purchased, so we couldn't threaten him like, "Oh, we're canceling your Christmas gifts." So that was certainly a very, very regrettable moment in podcast history.

Steve: Lesson learned. Was a rough night in the Mazing household that day, that's for sure. Catherine, anything you'd take back at this point, if you could?

Catherine: I think I complimented you in one episode. I would maybe bleep that out.

Catherine: No, I'm kidding.

Steve: That's fair. If I could unbleep something, I would talk more about my love for Ohio State football and disdain for Michigan football. But we'll maybe have that debate, that conversation some other time. Well, Catherine, what do you think? Is there a place for [bleep] in earnings calls and 10-Ks?

Catherine: 10-Ks are filed with the government so isn't that going into your permanent record? Earnings calls seem a little more conversational, so eff yeah, people can say [bleep]

Steve: Oh well, maybe we'll take a lesson and start adding such gratuitous swears on the podcast. And maybe shortly thereafter, we'll be updating our resumes on LinkedIn. Big thanks, Nick Mazing from Sentieo, for joining us today.

Catherine: And big thanks to you, dear listener, for surfing along with us. I'm Catherine Tsai, that was Steve Soter, and this has been Off the Books, presented by Workiva. Please subscribe. Leave a podcast review. Tell your buddies if you liked the show, and feel free to drop us a line at offthebooks@workiva.com. [bleep], dear listener, and we'll see you on the next wave.

Off the Books season 3

Duration

24 minutes

Hosts

Steve Soter, Catherine Tsai, Nick Mazing

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