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No offense …

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Stand-up comics have to be just about the bravest people around.

If you’re a singer and the audience doesn’t enjoy your performance, you can blame the composer, the arranger, or your backup band.

If you’re an actor you can blame the script, the director, or the other actors in your show.

But if you’re a stand-up comic, it’s just you and the audience. They either laugh or they don’t. If they don’t, you’re up there with your bare face hanging out, soaked in flop sweat and with nowhere to hide.

We’ve been talking about political correctness and its impact on the workplace the last couple of weeks (“Polite-ical correctness,” 4/4/2016 and “It’s my turn to be the victim!” 4/11/2016). But so far we’ve barely touched on the most important dimension of the issue: Humor.

As a leader and manager you aren’t paid to be a comedian. You are paid to, among other things, create a healthy work environment.

What makes a work environment healthy? First and foremost, nobody in the workforce should feel threatened or harassed.

The law (as I understand it; I did lead HR once upon a time but I’m not an attorney) makes allowances for reasonability. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays. That doesn’t mean your other employees can’t celebrate birthdays. It does mean no one should pressure their co-worker to join the festivities.

But being unthreatening and unharassing doesn’t make a workforce healthy, any more than not having a fever and rash means you’re feeling fine. A manager who considers this an achievement needs to set the bar a wee bit higher.

This is where humor comes in. In my experience, in healthy work environments employees kid around — something that’s awfully hard to do without humor being involved.

Humor being what it is, though, kidding doesn’t always turn out to be funny. But then, there are no level-of-humor benchmarks you can draw on to determine the absolute level of funniness of a given wisecrack.

If the worst that happens is that nobody laughs, you’ll have an employee with newfound empathy for what stand-up comics risk at a professional level, except that all your employee has to say is, “Well, I thought it was funny,” and everyone moves on.

But there’s precious little in the way of kidding around that doesn’t risk offending someone, for several reasons the kidder has no control over.

The first has to do with DNA: Some people just weren’t born with the sense of humor gene. Strangely, the Americans with Disabilities Act ignores this syndrome and big pharma has yet to develop a treatment. It’s too bad, because the afflicted sometimes take offense at a remark specifically because their understanding of humor is, at best, theoretical.

The second reason is obliviosity. Congenital wisecrackers can be oblivious, more focused on eliciting a smile, guffaw, or something in between than on how what they’re about to say might offend a listener.

The third is the legitimate piece of what those who complain about political correctness are griping about — as a society we’re encouraging people to feel victimized, causing everyone to tip-toe around everyone else.

But as Offense-O-Meters are no more commercially available than level-of-humor benchmarks, it isn’t up to you or anyone else to tell an employee who’s feeling offended that he or she is wrong.

So what, as a business leader, do you do?

HR “best practice” says you play it safe. If there’s kidding, banter, jibes, or repartee, discourage it.

This will keep you out of trouble and the company out of court. It will also kill team performance. Teamwork depends on trust. Stop the joking around and you’ll pretty much wipe out the interpersonal relationship-building that trust depends on.

Or, you can establish a more relaxed atmosphere, with give-and-take and all the good-humored wordplay that goes with it.

And if someone does take offense? At the risk of horrifying your average HR professional:

Meet privately with the offended party (call him “Jim”). Explain that he has four alternatives.

The first: File a complaint with Human Resources. That’s his right and he’ll get a fair hearing with no retribution later on.

Second: Explain to the offender (call her “Jane”) that she was offensive, and why. If Jim chooses that course of action, you’ll be happy to mediate if he’d like.

Third: If Jim isn’t comfortable talking to the offender, you can have a quiet word with her instead.

Fourth: Jim can shrug it off and decide it isn’t worth making a fuss about.

So long as you’re completely neutral as to which alternative you’d prefer, you should stay out of trouble.

Just, whatever you do, don’t make a joke out of it.

Comments (5)

  • Good description of the problem. Although your 4 alternatives should cover it, a manager unfortunately needs to consider others, who were offended for Jim, and who don’t speak up. And a manager may need to talk with Jane regardless of what Jim says

  • “The first has to do with DNA: Some people just weren’t born with the sense of humor gene. Strangely, the Americans with Disabilities Act ignores this syndrome and big pharma has yet to develop a treatment. It’s too bad, because the afflicted sometimes take offense at a remark specifically because their understanding of humor is, at best, theoretical.”

    Is there a support group for those of us who work for people like this?

  • This isn’t a solution. As much as you want to have a healthy team dynamic, the jig is up. The only way to win, or rather not to lose, is not to play.

    “Jim” can’t be counted on to not get “Jane” fired. Her (and every other member of the team’s) only safe play is not to joke around.

    We live in a world where free speech is breathing it’s last breaths.

    Killing the ability to have highly functional teams is just one of the myriad bad side effects.

  • The message from a philosopher was “The meaning is the use and the use is the meaning.”

    Many years ago, I used to really enjoy “P____ jokes”, made fun at the expense of the Polish; but I found I could live without them. When I was in college, the members of the fraternity I had just joined, teased me with a well-meaning nickname for months. I knew that their intentions were good, but after a while, I felt they were using it as an excuse to not take me as seriously as they did the others in the fraternity. I asked them to stop, and they did, but I soon became effectively inactive, even though I had originally been elected pledge captain.

    I’m glad this discussion has come up, as it has caused me to reconsider a time, when I teased a new coworker because I liked him and expected that he do well. What I hadn’t considered was that he was only about 5’7 and of medium build, whereas I was 6’3″ with the size (but not the ability) of a pro football lineman. I thought he was safe because he was a manager and (I thought) he had all the power. But when I look back at it, I think he must have felt threatened, because when he advanced, he showed himself to be a bully and actually became inappropriate in use of his power with me and others.

    While my boss and his boss talked to him about it, his behavior never changed. I could have, and probably should have, gone to HR, but I didn’t want to wreck the guy’s career. But, if I had not teased him, in a much milder form, of how I had been teased growing up, the possibility of him feeling threatened and his reaction might not have happened.

    As I see it, teasing is not the only form of humor. It works only when we can trust each other. I believe, strongly, that we blacks, but not others, have the right to use the N-word between ourselves, in part, because we have and do share the direct consequences of using it. But when is that true in the workplace?

    Putting down other people and other groups is just one form of humor. I think this kind of humor is like sexual intimacy: If all involved want it, it’s the best; otherwise it’s assault. As was said, “The meaning is the use and the use is the meaning.”

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