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Should a sense of humor be mandatory? Should it be banned?

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Mostly, when you work with someone for any length of time at all you can figure out if they were born with the Sense-o’-Humor gene.

Except for one person I worked with who had a sense of humor some days but not all days. We tried to get him to wear a badge – red on one side, green on the other – but he didn’t get the joke.

I rarely mind if someone doesn’t laugh when I crack wise. When they don’t know I’m cracking wise? That’s more of a challenge, especially as “I was just kidding!” has become the go-to excuse for anyone and everyone who’s been just plain offensive.

Meanwhile, a long-time subscriber writes of his recent trip to HR, the result of his having shown, at a company social event, the usual string of photos of attendees having fun and goofing around. What triggered the trip to HR: A slide showing one of the male attendees engaging in a minor bit of what he considered to be a harmless display of cross-dressing (women’s lingerie worn outside his clothing), which another attendee found offensive. To which, a few thoughts, musings, and concerns, starting with:

What offended the complainer? If they were offended by the cross-dressing itself, they’re the one who needs some HR coaching about tolerance. The “T” in “LGBTQ” might not stand for “transvestite,” but intolerance toward transvestites shouldn’t be acceptable.

The complaint might have been that the offender’s fashion statement ridiculed transvestites. That might hold water if this had been a repeat offense coupled with his having made derogatory statements about transvestites in general, or about a specific transvestite in particular. That wasn’t the case here.

My best guess is that HR decided to play it as safe as possible. Asking “What specifically did you find offensive about this?” could be counted as failing to deal with a harassing environment, and extracting a promise from the offender to never cross-dress at a company function again would seem to be a harmless way to close the matter and get on with business.

Except that extracting that same promise from anyone and everyone who cross-dresses at a company event would create an unwelcoming and harassing environment to transvestite employees.

Do all complaints require HR action? We are, to mix metaphors so badly you might want to complain to HR, on the knife edge of a pendulum you might think has swung too far. If businesses can only work when joking, joshing, and goofing around are banned because someone might find a way to take offense, that’s one more step in the evolution of employee/employee relationships, from interpersonal trust-based collaboration to interacting purely on the transactional basis of inputs and outputs.

On the other hand, as we’ve been discovering over the past several years, there’s no shortage of bigotry here in the U.S. of A. Should HR tell everyone who’s been offended by an overtly and expressively bigoted colleague to grow a thicker skin? That’s one more step on a different slippery slope – the one in which anger and hostility become the dominant characteristics of the business culture.

Bob’s last word: The problem managers find themselves dealing with when it comes to workplace harassment is that offensiveness, like its polar opposite, beauty, is in the eye (or ears) of the beholder.

My personal preference, which goes nowhere because it can’t, would be for the company policies and procedures manual to prescribe the process to be followed by anyone who’s been offended by anyone else:

Step 1: Inform the offender that you were offended, explain why, and ask that the offender not become a repeat offender.

Step 2a: If the offender acknowledges the legitimacy of the complaint and agrees to not engage in similar behavior in the future, case closed.

Step 2b: If the offender fails to acknowledge the legitimacy of the complaint, and repeats the offense, that’s when the person who’s been offended should contact HR, which would lay out the company’s you’re-way-beyond-our-zero-tolerance-for-bigotry-and-harassment policy.

But this isn’t going to happen – it would result in too much tangible risk, for rewards that are too intangible to warrant the risk.

The unsatisfactory alternative, which I unhappily recommend, is that we all need to be patient as the pendulum swings back and forth a few more times.

Bob’s sales pitch: Did you like what you read this week? Consider forwarding it to your HR director with my compliments. HR can’t be any happier about the numbification of the workforce than we are, and the more companies that are willing to try out alternative solutions the better.

If you do, let me know how it goes.

Now on CIO.com: Now on CIO.com: “Bad metrics are worse than no metrics,” and especially why SMART goals just might be worse than no goals at all.

Comments (2)

  • Unless you misstated the circumstances, the person who was hauled into HR was not the one who engaged in the offensive behavior, but rather the person who showed the slide of the offensive behavior. What exactly did he do that triggered the issue?

    • He showed the slide of the person who engaged in the behavior, along with other photos of people having fun at the event. Whether the behavior was offensive is, as I pointed out, is quite subjective.

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