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.