Jobs

When Does Making "Harmless" Jokes In The Office Stop Being Funny?

“For a Chinese girl, your boobs are as big as my future.”

“You’re really good at eating huge bananas, eeeeyyy?”

In a blackout, I worry that no one will be able to find you because your skin is so dark.”

If there was a zombie apocalypse, I’d want you as my partner so that I can sacrifice your fat *ss to the horde as a distraction.”

Jokes are a subjective line to tread.

Someone might think that these jokes above are offensive. Ask someone else though, and they might find them funny and harmless.

This changes dramatically the moment someone tries this in an office.

Out in the wild, a joke misfire usually leads to an awkward moment—and if you’re a considerate person, a quick attitude adjustment on your part.

In the office, the same joke misfire could mean disciplinary actions that leave a black mark on your reputation in the field.

For your personal life you’re able to pick and choose who to associate with, and this often means that you spend your time around people who share your sense of humour—and what you get offended by.

Usually, no one gets hurt.

But an office setting is a different nut to crack. Depending on where you work, you’re going to be surrounded with people who come from a different socioeconomic standing, different circles of society, not to mention different races and ages.

And everyone deserves the right to work in an office where they feel welcome.

If management lets a bad joke perpetuate in the office, then it’s like throwing employees under the bus.

But if they clamp down on any joke that could slightly be deemed as inappropriate, are they creating a culture in the office that stifles free speech and individuality?

So when does a joke go too far in the office? 

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always clear cut.

Since all that’s happened in Hollywood recently—along with the previous scandal surrounding Silicon Valley—our society is slowly taking a stance.

Sexual harassment should not be tolerated any longer,” more voices cry.

But how would you define a sexually harassing comment?

One example: is it sexual harassment if one woman calls another woman’s body “sexy”? Does the context change depending on how straight or gay either women are?

Let’s just say that management comes to a decision. And that decision is: women can say it, and not men.

Would they prefer to impose this imbalanced punishment system on their employees, or would they prefer to just ban comments about physical appearances altogether and save themselves to trouble?

I’m using sexual harassment as an example, but this is not the only type of offensive joke that may pepper an office’s conversations.

Some people might imitate another race’s accents (the Indian accent is a typical joke fodder). Some might make religion-related comments, like crinkling their nose at how incense smells, or how loud the mosque’s call to prayers are.

How about comments like, “Bro, that’s so gay,” to talk about anything bad, or effeminate?

What about political conversations? What about shared jokes between friends disparaging our government within earshot of other employees? It’s normal to make memes about Malaysian politics these days, so is it proper to share those among colleagues?

Sometimes, even comments about the rise and drop of oil prices can come packaged with political connotations.

You can say that none of these jokes are ever appropriate to say in the office, but it doesn’t stop the fact that they do happen, every day.

Then, where does office teasing come in? 

What is the line that decides what is teasing, and what is outright bullying?

For example, we have a colleague who is extremely scared of cockroaches.

She might be okay with us laughing at her phobia, but sending her any links to cockroach videos or articles is crossing a line.

If she worked in another company though, she might face worse. People might throw rubber cockroaches at her, or bring dead cockroaches to her just to get a reaction. You think we’re exaggerating, but one of us has come across those very situations in a previous workplace, where the ex-colleague in question had an equally crippling fear.

It’s all just a joke, right? There weren’t any bad intentions.

In another real life example, I know someone who’s afraid of balloons. Some might consider it a rather “silly” phobia, and admittedly it is odd. But, for his birthday, his colleagues filled his desk with balloons as a prank, knowing about his fear.

To me, stories like these come across as workplace bullying. His colleagues clearly didn’t think so, though.

This leads us to the next topic of discussion, which is:

Will an offended employee feel comfortable voicing it out? 

In any of those examples, they might find one joke or another offensive, but aren’t bringing it up to their colleagues or management.

For example, if the person who made the comment is your boss, how comfortable are you with bringing it up to HR?

Or they might just think that the joke is too insignificant or “small” to be worth rocking the boat for.

After all, getting reprimanded, or even punished can be a pretty humiliating experience, and someone might not feel comfortable putting someone through that. Or they’re afraid of professional repercussions, too.

Heck, they might just fear making things awkward for everyone.

Instead, they smile and laugh at the office, harbouring feelings of discontent while they voice out their displeasure at friends and family instead, talking down about their own company in the process.

That’s not the kind of image that any company would like to cultivate.

All of these are important questions to ask because the answers will also tell you what the office’s culture is. 

While there are a few factors that might influence office culture, it’s generally agreed upon that good office culture starts from the top.

Management that is not able to control or curb bad office culture either doesn’t care, or has lost control of the employees.

Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, this is a difficult line to straddle.

In the end, it’s all down to what is the culture that the company wants to cultivate.

Is it the kind of company that wants to encourage open discussions of even taboo topics, or a company that wants those out of its doors altogether?

But on top of this, they should also ensure that their culture is amenable to change.

If a new employee comes in and is uncomfortable with some of the jokes cracked across office desks, then it is also on the management to proactively conduct talks or meetings about to address this, either with the individual or the collective group.

For other, more grey-area types of jokes, the best that companies can do—as far as I can see—is to take this on a case-to-case basis.

If management notices an employee making comments or perpetuating jokes that doesn’t jive with their values and belief, it is their responsibility to pull the employee aside and have a talk with them about it.

Of course, they should also express to their employees what those values and beliefs are, starting as early as during hiring and onboarding.

This way, employees are well aware of the type of company that they’re coming into, and can decide if this is okay for them.

Once hired, the lines of appropriateness that have been drawn should be clarified to the employee, preferably in black and white, so that they can prepare to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

As for employees who feel offended, I think that in the end, it is still on you to inform management if something bothers you. 

After all, management and HR can’t be around all the time, and they might not know about the comments thrown at you in bathrooms, or during lunches.

The best way to curb this behaviour on your end is to let them know about it. Whether or not they take action, your responsibility should be to voice things out.

In the end though, I admit that I still have no answers to these questions. 

In the Vulcan Post workroom, we’re one of those teams that occasionally makes sexually suggestive comments, particularly that joke where you waggle your brows and laugh at what is supposed to be an innocent statement (“I can’t get this thumbdrive into the hole,” or “Let’s insert this point into the article“, just to name a few).

We also openly talk about taboo topics, such as our political opinions and sexual orientations. We simply consider this as an open desk that welcomes any of such opinions.

And honestly, I love this culture.

As far as I can tell, no one feels offended by any of our conversations (HR does check in with us once in a while to make sure).

But I also wonder, should we continue being like this simply because none of us are hurt? Or is this all just a ticking time bomb that is just waiting to burst the moment a new writer enters the team?

If and when this crackdown comes though, will I still enjoy having office conversations with my colleague?

What do you consider too far for an office joke? Should there be checks and balances in place? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below. 

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