MT Expert - People: When humour in the workplace isn't funny

Sometimes, a joke in the workplace crosses the line. Sneha Khilay asks at what point banter goes too far.

by Sneha Khilay
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

With recent changes in the law to protect staff in the workplace, there are still grey areas. With political correctness is still hot on the agenda, lots of managers have asked about workplace banter and jokes? 

Many people have been exposed to a ‘bad joke’, but I do wonder if we’re becoming so sterile that the slightest hint at what could be construed as an offensive word or joke has managers running for cover. Obviously, that risks creating a work atmosphere where jokes and banter are no longer permissible in case they offend someone – even though, when sensibly applied, they make for good work morale.

I’m increasingly aware that many jokes have a discriminatory element: for example, while watching stand up comedians who exaggerate their original accents to accentuate themselves – and ultimately become funnier. But is it acceptable?

On the one hand, laughing at jokes relating to racial characteristics maintains a stereotype, so it could be argued that the character is reinforcing racism. Alternately, it could be argued that, by making us aware of our prejudices, we’re challenged to change our views. There’s a very fine line between exploring taboos and perpetuating prejudices.

Just because somebody laughs the first time, it doesn’t mean they accept the joke. Coping mechanisms are common as a way of pushing the comment to one side in favour of maintaining the work relationship.

I was told about a situation that involved a female firefighter. She was the only woman at the station and suffered years of abuse by her sexist boss, who said ‘women shouldn’t be allowed to be firefighters’. The lady felt that she had become a victim as a result of having a job that was in ‘a man’s world’. It ended up with a colleague feeling so isolated, she left her job as a result.
But the line isn’t drawn at sexism: what about swearing?

It’s not uncommon for people to feel uneasy when expletives are used around them – and in the workplace, it’s not always considered professional. I spoke to another lady recently has asked her colleagues not to use offensive words around her. It made the situation worse: they called her ‘the language police’.

Another dilemma came from a lady who hated being called ‘darling’ by one of her clients. Having reminded them several times, they carried on using it, probably as an alternative to remembering her first name. Her manager told her to put up with it – after all, the customer comes first.

Over the years, I seem to have developed a 'sliding scale'. Jokes about 'women drivers' are seemingly more common and therefore pass towards ‘acceptable'. Does that mean that when a joke’s made repeatedly, over time it becomes acceptable?  Should colleagues and managers 'humour' or 'challenge' the comment? Some managers have told me that sort of thing leaves them with a dilemma over whether they should take any further action.

There’s a time and place for satire - the therapeutic value of humour has long been recognised. Humour helps people to bond, especially when dealing with difficult situations. But whether or not you find a joke funny, your reaction is 'correct'. You either laugh or you don't. As they say, ‘One person's sense of humour is another's insult.’

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