A joke that’s far too crude and disgusting to tell in this column has the punch line, “Because it can.”

That, of course, is the explanation for a lot of behavior that otherwise would be too crude, disgusting, or otherwise unbelievable to otherwise account for.

A reader I’ll call “Jim” because that isn’t his name relates the following. I’ve removed his employer’s name and made minor edits for length. Jim has given me full permission to relate the specifics, understanding that his employer will easily recognize itself and him. I’ve e-mailed his employer asking for its account; so far I’ve received no response.

“Just recently, I forwarded a joke through the company e-mail system to three coworkers and one equivalent project employee from a “sister” company. One of them forwarded the joke to an employee in Human Resources.”

“I made a bee-line to that HR employee and apologized for the incident. She accepted my apology and told me she thought it was funny. I was pulled aside by another HR staff member who asked me to sign a fair warning agreement confirming that I understood the proper usage of the company’s e-mail system, and further occurrences of inappropriate use of company e-mail would result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

“Okay, fine. So, I signed the agreement. I went directly back to my workstation and deleted all personal e-mail, and warned others to do the same. Case closed, right? Wrong.”

“The following day I received a call from a manager in HR telling me that not only did I disrupt relations between the firm and our sister company by sending this joke via e-mail, but also that this was a fatal flaw in my employment with the firm.”

“I asked my boss to hold my hand while I met with HR the second time around. Despite his presence I was awarded a one-week suspension without pay as the penalty for my crime. I felt belittled. What was I going to tell my wife staying home with our newborn? ‘I’m sorry, honey, no food on the table for a week because I forwarded a joke at work.'”

“My boss, by the way, didn’t say the one thing that might have impressed me. The irony is that he sent me the joke in the first place. I removed his name as the originator of the e-mail to protect his anonymity. To this day, HR does not know who sent me the joke, though I’m really not sure if it mattered.”

“The joke itself: a simple dialogue box application that read, ‘For your Annual Bonus, Click OK’. As the cursor moved toward OK, the OK button moved farther and farther away until it disappeared from the dialogue box. Funny, eh?”

Jim’s employer clearly acted within its legal rights in handing him his suspension. As noted in a recent column, in most organizations HR’s unstated mission is to keep the company out of court, and Jim confirmed with counsel that he has no basis for filing a complaint.

I don’t want to beat on HR. I doubt HR formulated the e-mail policy Jim violated. Its rigid enforcement may not be by choice either.

Here’s what I do know: right now it’s an employee’s job market. Any IS professional who isn’t a complete loser can find new employment quickly and easily, and probably for an increase in pay. And it costs a whole lot more to replace an employee than to preserve one you have, both in overt and opportunity costs.

Here’s something else I know: if you want high-performing “human resources” you need strong morale, high levels of trust, and employees who are comfortable working with each other. Swapping jokes helps that happen; punishing joke-telling kills it, regardless of the joke transmission medium.

And here’s something I’m sure of: If I suspended someone with a newborn at home for a week without pay for e-mailing an inoffensive joke to three friends, my mother would rise from her grave to ask me, in pointed terms, if this is how she raised me.

Whenever I take a personality profile I ask myself a Microsoft-like question: “Who do you want to be today?”

The technique is simple: Just choose a self-image and role-play as you fill out the personality assessment survey. I once got myself into considerable trouble this way: As the facilitator reviewed our team results he looked at my profile and said, “You have a classic entrepreneur’s profile!” He waxed ecstatic over my alleged entrepreneurial tendencies for the next 10 minutes, before moving on to wax ecstatic over the entirely different character traits of a peer.

Both my boss and my employer had recently asserted the desirability of being more entrepreneurial, so I’d decided to be an entrepreneur for this exercise. It was a poor choice. Infused with one too many Tom Peters videos, I’d understood them to value entrepreneurship on the part of their employees. Nope. As I later pieced it together, they wanted the company and its leadership to be more entrepreneurial, not its middle managers and employees.


American business is in love with entrepreneurship – the word, if not the reality – so “entrepreneurial” now means “good.” And that’s just plain silly, because entrepreneurship is a constellation of traits. Some you probably value; others have no place in your organization. Be smart: Pick and choose from this, my personal list of entrepreneurial character traits.

Decision-making: Entrepreneurs decide quickly, because an unmade decision, like a hungry child, stares at you demanding attention. Entrepreneurs feel stress as unmade decisions accumulate.

Corporate managers, on the other hand, delay decisions as long as possible. Decision means risk – you may be wrong – so made decisions are like ticking time bombs. Requests for more information and analysis, in contrast, can always be defended as reasonable and prudent.

More than any other entrepreneurial trait, decision-making is the one companies want. Ask if there is any good reason to delay each decision rather than asking whether that decision’s deadline has arrived. (Sometimes, by the way, delay is good. For example, defer technology decisions until the last possible moment, given technology’s pace of change.)

Opportunism: Entrepreneurs are deal-driven critters. Strategy? That’s for other people. I can make money today.

The entrepreneurial upside? Quick, low-risk profit. The downside: It’s easy to lose focus, dissipating the energy needed to implement strategy in the pursuit of tactical opportunities.

Should you adopt this trait? Only if your company has a stable business model and hasn’t defined a program of strategic change. Otherwise you’ll establish yourself as a fringe player and a distraction.

Encourage or discourage it in your employees for equivalent reasons.

Product focus: Entrepreneurs do care about customers – that’s where the money comes from – but they focus on creating products. Having a product focus is good because it enforces mental discipline. Vague ideas don’t survive translation into tangible products and services.

The downside? It’s easy to get caught in the “cool” trap – you do things because they’d be really nifty, not because anyone actually needs them. * Sales ability: Entrepreneurs are good at selling or they aren’t entrepreneurs. End of story. As an employee trait, sales ability has the advantage of encouraging enthusiasm. It also has a huge disadvantage – it emphasizes surface over depth. Lots of companies unintentionally reward their good internal sellers.

Risk-taking: Successful entrepreneurs aren’t foolhardy. They do, however, know when to take a chance. So should you, and so should your employees. Before you start to glorify risk-taking, though, make sure everyone knows exactly what kinds of risks you’re willing to take, under what conditions, and both the rewards for success and consequences for failure. Yes, even when you encourage risk-taking you don’t want to reward failure. Just don’t punish it unless it resulted from stupidity or laziness.

Entrepreneurship, like so many words applied as metaphors inside the organization, blurs meaning rather than clarifying it. As with “internal customer” – another misapplied metaphor – you should avoid the meaningless label and instead communicate the behaviors and attitudes you value.