Harnessed positively, good work humor can be a strategic skill and act as a positive factor in communication, morale and stress reduction. However, bad work humor can not only negatively affect morale and communication, it can also result in complaints, civil rights violations, employee dismissal and lawsuits.
So, just what is and what is not appropriate work humor in America today?
First, answer the question, do you have the right of free speech at work in the United States today? Some of you are shaking your heads and saying no, but the true answer is yes. We have the right of free speech, but we also have the responsibility of free speech at work. You can say whatever you like and chances are you will not go to jail, but depending of the severity of our free speech a person may get fired. It’s important everyone accept that our constitutional rights to say something at work does not supersede someone else’s constitutional civil rights at work.
What’s the difference between free speech at work and at home? It’s simple; at home, if a family member, friend or neighbor tells a joke or says something inappropriate to us, we have the ability to simply walk away or leave. At work, if we suddenly leave a meeting or go home because someone is telling offensive jokes, they consider this “quitting” or an absence without leave (AWOL). The right of free speech cannot take priority over your co-workers or employees civil rights. As we all know, you can be sued civilly or criminally for violation of someone’s civil rights both in and out of the workplace. It’s a fact, WE LIVE IN A LITIGIOUS SOCIETY TODAY. Twenty years ago, who would have ever believed that a person could purchase a cup of hot coffee at McDonald’s, then drink that hot coffee, burn their lips and proceed to sue McDonald’s–because the coffee was “too hot”–and win a 7 figure settlement? Who would have ever believed that a criminal could break into your house, attempt to rob you, then fall over a piece of your furniture, break a leg and later sue you and win? It is beyond belief, but both scenarios are documented facts. People will sue over almost anything and we must be aware of that–not afraid, but aware.
People use work humor in many forms such as jokes, cartoons, internet humor… the list is never ending. However, all this humor is brought in with only one filter applied; it’s funny. That’s it. It’s funny and people want to share the laughter with others. Although this humor may have a positive impact on the workplace, problems arise at work when people either intentionally or unintentionally misuse humor at work. This misuse can be in the form of unauthorized copies on office equipment, internet misuse, racial jokes and much more.
For the purposes of discussion lets call the two types of humor “good humor” and “bad humor”. Good humor is humor that may come from pain or stress at work, but it does not cause pain or stress at work. Bad humor causes pain or stress at work and can in fact be the cornerstone for creating a hostile work environment.
Simply asking, “Can’t you take a joke?” after bad humor is used does not make the inappropriate humor acceptable. My suggestion is, if you have to argue or rationalize to yourself that something may or may not be appropriate at work, chances are it is not, and so–“When in doubt, leave it out.” Just because something is funny does not make it appropriate at work.
Celebrate good work humor, avoid bad work humor.
-Tim Gard, CSP, CPAE