Hard economic times, perpetual threat of layoffs, workers stretched too thin could all be contributing to the “increasingly humorous American workplace” according to MSNBC author Eve Tahmincioglu in her post No joke! The workplace needs a good laugh. However, others are pointing to our legal system’s clamp down on “hostile work environments” as the cause of a joyless workplace:
What’s exacerbating the joylessness this recession has spawned, some believe, is decades of joke slap-downs in offices and factories. “The whole issue of political correctness has gone too far when it comes to the criteria for determining an offensive comment,” says Thierry Guedj, workplace psychology expert and professor at Boston University. “If anybody is offended, then it’s offensive. The criteria has become much too personalized. It only takes one person being slightly upset at something for it to become offensive.” It started in the 1980s, he continues, got worse in the 1990s and “has now reached its maximum.”
It is true that more claims of workplace harassment are being filed. The EEOC received 27,112 charges of harassment in 2007, up almost 18% from the prior year. Employer’s settlement payments of $65.6 million for these charges are no laughing matter. From a legal perspective, should employees be worried about injecting humor into the workplace and is an employer’s “joke slap-down” necessary? If your humor doesn’t demean people based on their membership in a protected class, then joke away.
It is the “off-color jokes” and other “humor” related to gender, race, national origin, religion or other protected classifications that can be considered harassment. These types of comments always find their way into allegations of discrimination or harassment when a complaint is filed. However, there is an important distinction between remarks uttered by a supervisor (quid pro quo harassment) verses those spoken by a co-worker (hostile environment harassment).
Potentially discriminatory remarks or jokes spoken by a decision maker are evidence of discriminatory motive in adverse employment decisions as noted by the Supreme Court in Ash v. Tyson Foods. A couple of off-color jokes followed up by a disciplinary suspension may give a discrimination charge some merit. On the other hand, mere utterance of a joke or other inappropriate remarks by a co-worker may not sufficiently affect conditions to create a hostile environment as noted in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson. But that’s your risk.
According to EEOC Policy Guidance, a "hostile environment' harassment takes a variety of forms, many factors may affect this determination, including: (1) whether the conduct was verbal or physical, or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile and patently offensive; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or a supervisor; (5) whether the others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual.
Severity and the pervasiveness of alleged hostile activities are the focus of the legal analysis. This is a very fact sensitive inquiry which depends in part on what a reasonable person would find offensive. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that some racial slurs and jokes are so historically offensive that their use in the workplace, even once, can lead to liability for an employer who doesn’t respond appropriately. A single utterance of an epithet can create a hostile work environment if it is viewed as “severe” and it is aimed at the individual rather than a generalized comment.
Professor Guedj is correct that workplace humor has changed; but, perhaps the change was needed. The impact of hypersensitivity is theoretically mitigated by the reasonable person standard. However, the gray of the law may have led some workplace humorist to abstinence. Alternatively, practicing “safe humor” could include the following prophylactic measures:
- Evaluate the content of the humor; some words and subjects are never appropriate for the workplace.
- Know your audience.
- Save your stand up routine for the comedy club where patrons are willing participants.
- Don’t make jokes personal by singling out one individual as the butt of your humor.
- Stop joking with people who seem uncomfortable with it.
- Don’t ridicule co-workers who don’t like your humor
- Try ask whether someone is offended by the humor.
- If a co-worker’s joke offends you, then say something to the jokester.
- Don’t e-mail jokes to everyone in the office.
- Take seriously complaints about inappropriate humor, but remember the conduct must offend a reasonable person.