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Opinion: When workplace humour crosses the line

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HC Online | 04 Jul 2016, 05:25 PM Agree 0
Humour plays a critical role in the workplace. However, a line is crossed when that humour violates the most basic human value: that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences.
  • Bernie Althofer | 05 Jul 2016, 12:38 PM Agree 0
    Two people working side by side can make the same comment in the same group of people, and yet, workers laugh with one of the two, and find the comments made by the other person 'creepy'.

    The article highlights the difficulties facing a contemporary workplace about exactly where the line is, compared to where some people think the line is, and where others believe the line should be.

    The 40 of so years that I have been in and around workplaces have seen an ever changing dymanic regarding the acceptability of some comments, from whom they are made, and to who they are directed. It may be beneficial to workplaces to hold discussions about what is meant by above and below the line behaviours, what they actually look like in real terms, and why people do find some comments offensive, when others view them in a jocular fashion. Some comments are clearly above or below the line, and when 'localised' practices are factored in as part of the organisational culture, what is said is done may be significantly different to what the CEO etc expect as the organisational standards.

    It has been an issue for some considerable time that when below the line comments are made to a group of colleagues or workers, is that if no-one immediately speaks up, they should not be complainer later. For example, I have provided advice to individuals caught up in this type of situation. They did not speak up a the time because 1. they did not know how to raise their discontent in the group 2. they were concerned they would be seen as a troublemaker 3. they were concerned about retribution, victimisation etc for not seeing the 'funny side 4. did not know the organisational procedures for reporting such conduct or behaviour 5. did not believe they would be taken seriously.

    Understanding what is and what is not acceptable in the name of humour is important, so workplaces do need to have discussions about this topic. In most cases, organisations will have a Code of Conduct that discusses respect and dignity, and training is conducted on these aspects. However, some people do not really understand what is meant by respect and dignity. For example, I spoke to an employee who had been conducting a series of workshops about a new Code of Conduct. I asked whether there had been any discussion about 'what is meant by respect' and he responded 'everyone knows what that is'. I went on to outline some situations where I had long and involved discussions where it was clear that all parties held differing views. Again, if people at all levels are being asked to treat others with respect and dignity, they at least need to know what is meant by the terms and what respect and dignity actually looks like.
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