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

La plume de ma tante est sur la table.

This popular phrase from my high school French class, combined with last week’s excursion into the land of pronouns, leads to a number of questions.

Starting with this: What’s the point of having pronouns in the first place?

Answer: Take the short paragraph, John Smith has blond hair. He also has blue eyes.

It tells you the person named “John Smith” has blond hair and blue eyes. It also tells you I’ve either inferred John is male because in my experience most people named “John” are male, or else that John has told me he’s male.

Pronouns, like acronyms, make writing and speech less repetitive and more compact. Were I to write about robotic planetary exploration, I might explain that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) landed the Curiosity rover on Mars to help us understand that planet better. NASA should be proud of what it has accomplished.

If I did, you’d understand what NASA refers to. Had I spelled it out in the second mention my writing would have been unnecessarily clumsy and bumpy.

What you wouldn’t understand was whether I was saying NASA should be proud of its accomplishments or Curiosity’s.

I violated the first rule of pronoun usage – that the antecedent must be clear.

We use pronouns to make our writing and speaking more compact and graceful. Their purpose is not to demean or categorize anyone – an accusation a number of correspondents shared with me in response to last week’s commentary.

I disagree with this view. Gender-specific pronouns don’t demean, because intent defines the crime. Unlike the pejorative and belittling terms used by bigots to refer to various racial and ethnic groups, not to mention some of the repulsive terms used by the rabidly insecure to refer to women, pronouns weren’t coined to derogate or to bolster one group’s need to feel superior to other groups.

There is a difference between outcome and purpose.

Pronouns, whether gender-specific or gender-neutral, exist to provide a less bulky way to refer to someone or something who (or that) has already been clearly identified. Our cultural traditions being what they are, we used to think gender agreement – “he” vs “she” vs “it” helped clarify the antecedent.

Clearly, that’s no longer the case. But those who advocate re-thinking how we choose third-person pronouns aren’t doing themselves any favors when some of the proposed pronouns lack clear definitions, or, in some cases, any definition at all.

Again, the first rule of pronoun use is making sure the antecedent is clear.

Gender-neutral expression is easily accomplished. Just accept the singular “they.”

The gender-aware pronoun landscape is complicated, and made more so by having no nouns, newly coined or otherwise, for the new pronouns to refer to.

As I understand it, a person’s gender refers to a combination of personal traits – at a minimum their anatomy, genetics, hormonal physiology, psychology, and maybe sexuality. Each of these might be male, female, neither, or both.

We need, that is, between 16 and 20 nouns if we’re going to sensibly identify a person’s gender. We have, by my count, four (male, female, hermaphrodite, asexual), making pronouns based on just one or two personal traits ambiguous.

Because of this unsolvable ambiguity, my opinion continues to be that, when communicating, erring on the side of gender-ignorance (“they” for all third-person usages other than “it”) is a logical and inoffensive interim solution.

When dealing with interpersonal relationships, on the other hand, personal preference, even to the extent of someone choosing a syllable at random, ought to guide our pronounal choices as a matter of evolving good manners.

Bob’s last word: Getting back to my aunt’s pen, reforming French to avoid gender-insensitivity is even more complicated than English.

Should the French insist on defaulting my aunt to a grammatically defined gender of female because the noun “la tante” is female?

Or should her personal gender assignment govern the decision, making “mon tante” the right phrasing should my aunt consider themself to be male?

An estimated 75% of all languages have gendered nouns and face the conundrum of what to do when a noun’s definitional gender (“la tante”) and personal gender (“mon tante”) conflict.

Our English-language challenges seem, in comparison, downright benign.

Bob’s sales pitch: Projects push change into an organization. That’s what Bare Bones Project Management is for. But organizational change calls for pulling even more than pushing.

That’s why I wrote Bare Bones Change Management. It complements project management with proven techniques for pulling change through the organization.