Is it okay to allow even minor racial comments, crude or sexual jokes or similar derogatory behaviors at the workplace if nobody objects? One of the risks of including verbage in anti-harassment workplace conduct policies such as, “is unwelcome” is that it conveys the impression that the company condones such conduct until such time that it offends someone and only then must it stop.
Another flaw in this ill-conceived lithmus test of offensiveness is its’ reliance on the notion that all employees are comfortable speaking up if something they overhear, read in an email, or is said to them is offensive. Many employees are not comfortable being the whistle blower especially if they are a new employee or in any kind of workplace staff minority.
In February 2008 a telephone survey conducted by Novations Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, found that 45% of men and 38% of women heard sexually inappropriate comments at work in 2007. The survey found that 38% of employees between the ages of 18 and 34 heard age-related ridicule while only 16% of those over age 55 heard such ridicule. This data suggests that employees are more likely to make innappropriate remarks when in the presence of those least likely to take personal offense.
Employees who make these inappropriate remarks might assume they would not be subject to discipline if the group they are associating with do not take offense at such remarks. So should managers intervene to stop such behaviors? Absolutely, and here is why. By not taking action to stop any conduct that could be considered degrading based on sex, race, or another statutorily protected characteristic a manager, and by extension, the company is seen as endorsing bias and creating a potentially hostile work environment.
If an employee pursues a harassment claim against the organization, that claim will more likely succeed with evidence that managers were aware of but failed to stop discriminatory remarks or behaviors in the workplace even if that conduct was not directed at the employee.
The bottom line is don’t wait for a complaint to intervene and stop any occurence of conduct that could test the definition of workplace harassment. A policy isn’t enough. Be the example and step in. Don’t let the joke be on you or your company.
Source: HR Magazine, September 2008, Not Funny – Remove the Welcome Mat for Inapporpriate Jokes, by Elaine Herskowitz