Monitoring Workplace Humor

By Paula Santonocito

Q.  I’m a department manager and I recently had a situation where one of my employees took offense at a joke he saw on another employee’s computer screen. I talked to both employees (separately), but I felt like a bit of a hypocrite because it was the same joke I had sent a friend from my home computer. How do you handle a situation like this honestly and effectively?

A.  Humor is highly subjective. What one person finds hilarious may have another rolling her eyes. But because humor can also depend on an individual’s frame of reference, which might include background, personal experience, and education, among other things, a joke can also be misconstrued by those who don’t “get it.”

It’s hard to know based on the information you shared what exactly offended your employee. Assuming the joke wasn’t discriminatory, there may have been a reference gap and he didn’t understand or appreciate the humor.

However–and this is a big however–there are larger issues here, and you should take note.

The Internet has created territory that employers, and this includes you as a manager, must navigate. What appears on a computer screen appears in the workplace. If a joke or image has the potential to offend someone, there could be legal implications. At the very least, there are issues of respect, fairness, and productivity.

To better manage productivity and minimize litigation, security, and other risks, many companies implement tools and rules to control online activity. These may include website blocking and/or email monitoring, as well as policies.

According to the 2007 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey, conducted by American Management Association (AMA) and The ePolicy Institute, 65 percent of companies now use software to block connections to inappropriate websites. The same survey finds 43 percent of companies monitor email.

Companies use these tools in connection with written policies. And the policies get enforced. Among employers responding to the AMA/ePolicy Institute survey, 28 percent have fired workers for email misuse and 30 percent have fired workers for Internet misuse.

You didn’t say whether your company has a policy regarding use of office business tools. If it does, this would be a good place to start. By relying on company policy, and reminding workers of that policy, you essentially remove yourself from the equation.

If your company doesn’t yet have a policy, it sounds like one is in order. Talk to someone in human resources about your experience and suggest that companywide standards be established. If you’ve had this problem, it’s likely others have, too.

As far as feeling like a hypocrite because you enjoyed the same joke at home, it seems like you’re missing two key points with regard to this particular situation. First, a workplace computer is not a home computer; it’s a tool for work. Second, your role as a manager includes making sure everyone in your department gets treated with respect.

Because of technology, as well as the blurring line between professional and personal lives, situations like these can be difficult to address. It helps to remember that your personal opinion and your private life may not figure in. Take a look at the situation as a manager, and manage accordingly.

Have a question?   Email Paula here.

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