Last week, a man called the Adam Carolla podcast to ask advice about a situation at his workplace, where he and his co-workers habitually email “stupid stuff to each other.” He explained that one of their email threads found its way to someone in management. “I was told that a joke I made was a little bit offensive and I should try to remember that it's the work mail,” the caller said. “And I just wanted to hear if it really was that offensive or I should just tell them that they should shut up?”
The man happens to live and work in Denmark. But as soon as I heard his question, it struck me as a useful case study to think through the nuances of workplace norms in the United States and to solicit thoughts from readers at The Atlantic.
Let’s start with the story as he presented it.
An employee at the man’s company was on vacation for a couple of weeks. He jokingly emailed his buddies back at the office that they must be pining for his return.
One of those buddies, the caller, replied all with an attempt at sarcastic humor.
“I said, ‘We miss you just as much,’ and then I put in a picture of Anne Frank, ‘as she missed this guy,’ and then I put in a picture of Hitler,” he explained. “And I know it's not perhaps the best kind of joke,” he told the radio host, “but I kind of liked it.”
Obviously, every human-resources staffer and career coach in America would rightly advise against telling a joke like that to colleagues, especially over email. The interesting question, I think, is whether those existing workplace norms are what they ought to be. Would that man’s joke be flagged in the ideal workplace culture?
The question strikes me as extremely difficult. Were I running a startup, where I was responsible for shaping the corporate culture, I wonder how I would handle the situation. In my head, I keep conjuring a debate between a jocular startup CEO and her HR director that illustrates some of the ways that I’m internally conflicted.
HR: I already warned the employee who wrote that email to make sure that he never behaves so unprofessionally again. And I think that we should discipline him. This is a business, not a comedy club. Our investors gave us money to earn returns. We’re paying workers to earn profits, not laughs. That’s inappropriate in a workplace.
CEO: Let me play devil’s advocate. It was a harmless joke. What’s wrong with having a little fun, in passing, at work, as long as you're doing your job well? He’s a capable, well-liked employee and his sense of humor is nothing if not mainstream. Our workers aren’t robots, they’re people, and we ask them to spend more time with their co-workers than they do with friends and family. I can’t forbid them from ever joking with co-workers. That might well hurt morale and productivity. You were teasing me this morning about my coffee order. Was that inappropriate?
HR: I don’t object to all jokes––I object to this joke. You can’t tell me that all humor is office-appropriate.
CEO: No, but this wasn’t a rape joke, or a sexist joke, or a racist joke.
HR: It was a Holocaust joke! There are subjects you don’t joke about. That’s one of them. It diminishes the atrocity and its victims. I get he was joking, but that’s no excuse.
CEO: I agree that “just joking” is a bad excuse, but that’s because jokes carry meanings. That’s what we should judge. It would be wrong to tell a joke that vilified Anne Frank or extolled Adolf Hitler or denied the Holocaust. But this joke is benign and unobjectionable because what it conveys, its actual substance, is something that no reasonable person disputes: Anne Frank would be very averse to Hitler.
HR: You’re intellectualizing it, as if a joke can be objectively inoffensive. But offense is subjective. In the workplace, people have a responsibility to avoid saying things that make co-workers uncomfortable. You can’t know every sensitivity, but any idiot knows an Anne Frank and Hitler joke is likely to upset someone.
CEO: I share that instinct, but the emailer isn’t an idiot and he didn’t seem to know better. Look, I don’t want any of our employees to be uncomfortable, ever. But that’s not achievable. If I go to our staff and tell everyone that they’d better watch what they say more closely from now on, that might make more employees anxious and uncomfortable. Some would prefer that no one ever jokes at work. Others would find that formal, restrictive environment uncomfortable, stifling or oppressive. I agree that we need to use our judgment about humor in the workplace. I just don’t think the right balance is banning any joke that might offend anyone.
HR: This isn’t just any joke, it’s a joke about a taboo subject. In fact, the taboo around the Holocaust is why it was chosen. And that sort of joke should be avoided at work. The way people actually react should shape our norms, not your weirdly literal deconstruction of humor, where you just erase how upset people feel.
CEO: What do you call Santa’s helpers?
HR: This better not be another genocide joke.
CEO: Subordinate Clauses. If an employee told that joke next December, and another employee complained that it’s upsetting to hear someone make light of the season when Christ was born, or to diminish it by secularizing it, we both know that you wouldn’t punish the joker. Our job is to render thoughtful judgments about what we will treat as reasonable, not to defer to all possible sensitivities. That isn’t erasing anyone. It’s just acknowledging that one employee’s feelings cannot be what determines if a joke is work-appropriate or not.
HR: It's important to me that we run a company where everyone feels comfortable and respected. I didn’t take this job to recreate Mad Men. There’s no need for jokes at work, so if a particular joke offends, why not just declare it out-of-bounds?
CEO: I would never tolerate sexism or racism or a recurring hostile climate for any employee. But it's important to me that we run a company where people are free to be themselves within reason––where they’re allowed to be human without having to be anxious about getting fired. So many people are terrified of saying the wrong thing. Why do you think there’s such a working class backlash to PC? You’re foisting the elite’s norms on a majority that doesn’t share them––on people acculturated with totally different norms that they see as perfectly decent. You’d be punishing this guy for violating intellectual standards he doesn’t even fully understand.
HR: I actually think a majority of people would find that joke offensive. But forget what other people think for a minute. You agree that some jokes are beyond the pale. By what standard? How would you decide what the norms should be? A popular vote?
When the Danish man explained his situation on the Adam Carolla podcast, the host argued that, in his view, an employee’s intentions count for a lot in these situations.
“My whole thing, for everything, is what did you think this person was trying to convey?” he said. “That Hitler is a good guy? That they hate Jews? That they agree with Nazis? No. What are they trying to say? What are we trying to get from this exchange?” The bosses are just trying to keep everyone happy, he continued, “But I swear to God, we're crafting a society––it's kind of a weird thing to hobble ourselves. We're human beings, let us have fun. And let's work on intentions, on the good and bad side... If someone intends to hurt somebody, you come down on them. It's why getting in a car accident is not illegal but ramming someone is a felony.”
That resonates with me. And yet…
HR: The problem with that approach is that I don’t feel like my responsibility is to police the intentions of employees, I think it’s to create a good work environment for them.
CEO: I worry that you’re actually creating a good environment for the few people who are unusually offended by jokes, and putting zero value on the comfort of people who feel anxious in the culture where they have to watch what they say very carefully. Think of someone who has an outgoing personality, and who uses humor to get through drudgery, or to forge friendships, or to mask insecurity or anxiety.
HR: I don’t want to cater our whole corporate culture to the needs of an outlier.
CEO: Fair enough. But I don't think it should be determined by the preferences of the most sensitive outliers either. We don’t do that with performance reviews. Why should we with humor? And if we tried, we wouldn’t even cater to those people, we’d end up responding to opportunists gaming the system by feigning sensitivity.
HR: If we don’t try, we’ll fail the people who are most targeted by hurtful jokes and least able to respond. That’s why it is reasonable to reprimand this employee, and the vast majority of HR professionals would agree with me. Doing so is in keeping with best practices. They may be more restrictive than in the past, but businesses are also a lot less hostile to people who were historically harassed and marginalized.
CEO: I don’t want to undo progress. I’ll never go soft on actual sexual or racial harassment. Or behavior that creates a truly hostile climate for anyone. But I still think that what you call best practices are actually part of a corporate culture that is excessively risk-averse, anodyne and soulless––and that something a bit less stifling would be better. Not Mad Men. Just not so… inhuman and humorless, as if we should separate work from life, even as we spend so many of our waking hours at the office.
HR: Yes, most people have to spend their lives at work. It’s one place where they can’t opt out.That’s why we must make extra sure that no one feels uncomfortable here.
CEO: What about people who feel uncomfortable in a place where innocently joking with their colleagues gets them lectured like they’re a pariah or maybe even fired?
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Tentatively, I think that I’d want a company I ran to consider employee jokes by asking three questions: 1) Did it actually upset anyone? 2) Was the intent malicious or innocent? 3) Was the joke or remark substantively at odds with company values? When the answer to at least two of those is yes––or when the intent is clearly malign––action is probably warranted. If not, doing nothing might be the best bet.
But I'd like to hear your thoughts and preferences.
What workplace norms would you consider ideal? How would you handle this case study and why? Better yet, can you share any stories from your work life, anonymously if necessary, that would perhaps help us to better think through these matters?
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The issue is too thorny to arrive at a perfect solution. But I suspect that hearing the reasoning behind different preferences might help everyone to get along better.