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.

I’m still on vacation (and will be for another week). I won’t be in a position to post a re-run tomorrow, so I’m sending this one out early. I don’t think anything in it has become at all stale, so give it a read even though you might remember it from 10 years ago. – Bob

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Remember the rule from the KJR Manifestothat there’s no such thing as an IT project — they’re all business change projects that make use of information technology?

It’s just as true for the projects that result in so-called “shadow IT” — the information technology that happens without IT’s direct involvement. And because it’s shadow IT, the folks who ask for it know this. They’re looking for business improvement — that’s where their thought process starts. The linkage is automatic.

Last week’s column explained why IT should start supporting shadow IT. But that isn’t enough. We need to support shadow projects as well … the too-small-to-notice-but-too-important-to-let-fail projects business managers charter to make their shadow IT happen, and also to make all kinds of other stuff happen too.

Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that your company has established a PMO or EPMO ([enterprise] program management office). If it’s like most PMOs, the company’s project managers all report there, and one of the rules is that all company projects must be managed by its trained project managers. That way, the company doesn’t risk investing in projects that are managed poorly.

Sounds a lot like the arguments against shadow IT, doesn’t it? Like those arguments, the driving force is risk reduction, but the actual impact is mostly opportunity avoidance.

Limiting the number of projects a business can take on to the number of available project managers artificially limits the company’s capacity for change. And when it comes to change, any bottleneck other than the company’s ability to absorb it is inappropriately limiting — a decision to adapt and improve more slowly than necessary.

Which is why, in so many companies that have established an official PMO or EMPO, business managers charter lots of under-the-radar projects.

The shadow project situation sounds more and more like shadow IT, doesn’t it?

On the whole, shadow projects have less risk and yield higher returns than most of the official projects in the company’s portfolio, a natural consequence of their being small, short, tightly focused, and properly sponsored.

Yes, properly sponsored, something that’s more-often true of shadow projects than official ones, because shadow projects are started by business managers who personally want them to succeed. This makes them sponsors … real sponsors, by definition … and the importance of sponsorship in effective project management is well known.

Just in case: Real sponsors want their projects to succeed enough to stick their necks out and take risks when necessary to support their project-manager partners. That’s in contrast to assigned sponsors, who are thrown in front of official projects, just because the methodology says every project has to have one. Assigned sponsors don’t really care, because why would they?

So shadow projects have less risk than their formally chartered brethren. Except for one thing: They’re mostly led by employees who, while promising, have no project management training or previous experience. Their managers/sponsors, themselves usually unaware of what project management actually takes, tell them, “This will be a terrific development opportunity for you,” ManagementSpeak for “There’s a bus approaching at high speed!” followed by a shove.

The result is that right now, many shadow projects aren’t managed as projects at all, because the employees who are put in charge of them have never managed a project and have no idea where to start.

They need help.

So here’s a thought: Instead of trying to stamp out these shadow projects the way IT used to try to stamp out shadow IT, why not provide some support?

Like, for example, giving about-to-be-run-over-by-a-bus neophyte project managers some tools and training, instead of treating them like orphan stepchildren. The secret, and the challenge: Those best equipped to provide the tools and training know too much about the subject. They know, that is, the techniques needed to implement SAP, erect a skyscraper, or build a nuclear submarine.

What many of them don’t know is which of those techniques can be safely jettisoned when the task at hand is managing a team of three people for a few months — at a rough guess, 90% of their expertise. As is so often but so strangely the case, scaling something down can be harder than scaling it up.

Still, it can be done, and doing it is important. In the aggregate, shadow projects add up, even if no one of them is a big hairy deal.

If the PMO/EPMO reports inside IT, the CIO can make shadow project support part of its charter. If not, there’s no reason IT can’t provide it on its own.

Which is a nice irony: Where IT used to do its best to stamp out shadow activities, it has just become an active conspirator in them.