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Workplace Humor: Keeping It Light and Lawsuit-free
By Dave Clemens

No smart supervisor wants to squelch harmless jokes that burn off tension and build camaraderie.

But sometimes – often before people realize it – jokes can turn mean, or jokesters overdo it, or somebody thinks it’s funny to pile on a co-worker. When that happens, supervisors need to intervene.

So why is humor so potentially explosive and damaging?

Risky business

One reason: People allow themselves to do things in the name of fun that they wouldn’t dream of doing seriously. In other words, they’re willing to take risks they’d never take in other circumstances.

An example: Employees know they can be fired for fighting. But some people think it’s fighting only if you’re serious. It’s a different matter entirely to engage in “mock” fights or aggressive horseplay, they reason. That’s a risky assumption.

And then there’s the slippery slope. You’ve seen it happen: One employee tells a questionable joke, and a co-worker tries to top it with one a little more outrageous. Then a third employee piles on with something really offensive.

Out-of-control humor can have serious consequences. Among them:

  • Damage to people’s feelings, with resulting losses in productivity and team cohesion
  • Physical damage to people and/or property, with resulting workers-comp implications, replacement costs, and so forth, and

  • Legal liability for the organization, with associated attorney and court costs.

What to do

Sometimes it’s obvious that a joke or a prank is out of line. But what about the questionable cases? You know, where an employee makes an edgy joke and you aren’t sure whether you should do something about it or just let it go.

Here’s a rule of thumb for such situations. Ask yourself – and ask your people to consider – is the joke, or prank, worth the risk?

Remember that risk can pop up in unexpected places.

An employee who is the subject of a mock “arrest” could have an ex-con in their family, and so be extremely sensitive on the subject. Some employees are willing to laugh along with jokes about their weight, but others may be seriously offended. Some folks may be okay with physical contact during mild horseplay, while others consider it crossing the line.

Prevention

Beyond assessing risk, there are at least three things supervisors can do to minimize the chances of workplace humor going terribly wrong:

  1. Listen to what your people are saying – what’s known as “management by walking around.” If you’re not spending time talking to your people, you can’t know what’s really going on.
  2. Call the team’s attention to specific problems. You may not want to single out a particular employee for telling one or two dubious jokes, but you do want to nip problems in the bud. Hold a team meeting and explain why the kinds of things you’ve been hearing are potentially harmful and need to stop.

  3. Deal with instigators. If you become aware that one or two particular employees are always behind risky jokes or pranks, bring them in individually and lay out the disciplinary consequences if they continue their behavior.

A final thought: The line between constructive humor and humor that wounds is sometimes a fine one. And there’s no universal checklist of “acceptable jokes” that you can go by.

But if you and your team keep in mind the consequences of misguided humor, and the risks it poses – as well as your organization’s policies, of course – you’ll be better prepared to head off problems in the workplace you supervise.

Dave Clemens has spent years consulting with HR professionals, researching developing trends, and tracking employment case law. His HR Café blog is read by 14,000+ subscribers and he is a senior writer for the Compliance & Management Rapid Learning Center online training site. His work has also appeared in the World Press Review, The Associated Press, and in several nationally recognized human resources, employment law and business newsletters. Connect with Dave via Twitter @TheHRCafe.

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