Tag Archives: Christine Porath

The dark side of humour

Humour in the Workplace

The right to be offensive

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire

I found myself the other evening at the heart of a heated dinner debate and somewhat surprisingly not in the majority camp either. The issue: the right to be humorous, even if it causes offence and what this means for the undermining of freedom of speech by overly political correctness. Should we be able to say what we like when if it’s supposed to be funny? It was a long dinner!

The discussion started around a remark made by a British comedian, Frankie Boyle, who made what he believed presumably to be a joke about a disabled boy. There was some negative media commentary afterwards and the mother, a minor and truthfully publicity seeking, headline grabbing, British celebrity, thereafter made a documentary about handicapped children.

Orwellian Newspeak
Humour in any organisation is a vital ingredient to creating a successful working atmosphere, so I am not suggesting a move towards the 1984 diminishing vocabulary of ‘Newspeak’, the politically correct language in Orwell’s famous dystopia. But stereotypes and prejudice do die hard. If we create a comedic culture where it is acceptable to use “jokes” about vulnerable people, then for me this marks the crossing of a very distinct line and sets the scene for the validation of copy cat behaviour.

There is no doubt that different groups have been singled out and targeted over history in jokes by more powerful and dominant sectors of our society, based on: gender, race, religion, physiology, nationality to name but a few. I understand that eliminating this type of behaviour in our media is not necessarily going to eradicate it from our societies. A culture of formal disapproval has been created around certain “isms” ( e.g. racism, sexism, anti- Semitism) which are now illegal, which we saw with John Galliano and his anti-Semitic rant earlier this year, or Mel Gibson’s racist tirade.

It’s hardly surprising that if in our wider cultures, offensive humour goes unchecked, that it sets the tone in our workplaces, when disrespectful comments, cloaked as jokes are on the increase, along with other forms of verbal abuse. We tend to think of this behaviour as shouting and /or profanity, but it also comes in more subtle, lower key, but equally damaging forms. Humour is one of them. According to U.S. Legal Definitions site, the definition is: “Verbal abuse is the use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to. It is difficult to define and may take many forms. Similarly, the harm caused is often difficult to measure. The most commonly understood form is name-calling. Verbal abuse may consist of shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, or derogatory language, among other forms of communication.”

Ill disguised malice
Humour (the quality of being amusing) can very often simply be ill disguised malice. I coached an entry-level employee recently whose boss referred to him within the department as his ” monkey”. Another contact left a job because of the constant jokes made about her figure. Another changed organisations because of incessant teasing about his red hair, which he now colours blond to avoid the jokes and name calling. (A teacher friend subsequently mentioned that red heads are considered a number one bullying target in schools). I have coached clients who have been the butt of jokes about their regional accents, clothes, hobbies and vision (or lack thereof.)

Much of this behaviour if allowed to continue in a working environment, can be profoundly damaging and develop into a form of bullying, which should be dealt with as such. It is of course difficult to measure and very subjective. What can be offensive to one person, may be glossed over and considered hilariously funny by another. How do we benchmark sensitivity? But disrespectful behaviour has been identified as costing as much as $300 billion

Political correctness
This is not to suggest that communication and language be sanitized to a monotonous neutrality, where fun is taken out of the workplace. Nor should we live in constant fear of offending people and getting caught up in the complex maze of political correctness, where we can no longer call a man with no hair, bald , or the use of the word manhole, rather than maintenance portal, comes with a reprimand. Hailing from the North of England my directness has not gone unnoticed, even when I believe I am exercising great restraint! I suspect would find myself in even more trouble.

I rejoice in the fact that I live in countries where freedom of speech is embraced. But neither am I convinced that ” A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.” Napoleon I.

It is also about how we say things.

Cleaning up workplace language

The impact of swearing on the %!@x* job!

I am no stranger to the odd expletive. I was recently defrauded by a client and I have to confess that my vocabulary was related to the legitimacy of his parentage, rather than “dash and oh dear”. Generally bad language is not an integral part of my descriptive daily vocabulary, although it would seem, if the media are anything go by, it’s on the increase everywhere, even in the workplace.

But what is the impact of that trend?

Cultural shifts
All languages have swear words, many of which are as old as the languages themselves. Their evolution is cyclical and words which were previously considered acceptable, are now perceived as pejorative. And vice versa. In western society swearing has previously been associated more with men than women.When I first started working in the steel industry, men complained about women being in meetings because it would mean restricting their language. It was considered inappropriate to swear in mixed company and if that happened it was quickly followed by an apology. Women who swore have always been viewed more harshly than men, simply because they were perceived to have violated more societal taboos which proved to be a deterrent, at least publically.

However, times seem to be a-changing. Bad language is moving away from building sites and fish markets to professional arenas and used by more women. Laura a lawyer in an international law firm confirms that view “ A number of things are going on. Words that were at one time considered to be strong swear words, no longer carry the same taboo as they used to. The “F -word ” is now used quite routinely in my office. It’s common place at a senior level and used in front of and by women. It is no longer considered shocking for a woman to swear” Whether it’s because they are enjoying freedom of expression, venting , asserting themselves, mimicking male behaviour or the growth of a “laddette” culture she was unable to say.

Mini poll
I did a straw, mixed gender and generation poll amongst a group of friends and associates and this was the general feeling. Light social swearing in many contexts is now very normal practise and considered acceptable in the workplace by both men and women alike, but accompanied by some strong unwritten protocols.

These were closely related to the relationships of the people involved and the situation or environment. They also identified a hierarchy of swear words ranging from mildly profane to vulgar and abusive at the other end of the spectrum. It was the final category which my mini poll felt crossed the line into dangerous territory, with the women reacting more strongly than men to specific words. It was interesting that the younger members of my poll of both sexes had a more tolerant attitude than the older members.

Positive impact
However , some studies suggest that swearing at work is not always abusive and can actually have a positive effect helping employees cope with stress, facilitating camaraderie and effective team building. The study into leadership styles, carried out by academics Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins at the University of East Anglia, warned that attempts to prevent workers from swearing could have a negative impact, although their case studies related primarily to men.

Decline in civility
But there is also a very strong concern that an increased tolerance of swearing in organisations is becoming part of a general decline in workplace communication.  This behaviour and can even contribute to bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Susan in her mid 30s, with a cross generational perspective works in an investment company where 80% of the department is female, considered both points “My female boss and colleagues are just as likely to swear as the guys and do so frequently! The number of no-go areas particularly amongst younger employees are much fewer than previously. Women feel they can now freely express themselves in the way that men do, but although no one feels harassed or discriminated against, oftentimes it creates an impression of a lack of basic respect which permeates through the department leading to ill feeling and stress.”

So I asked, while I tried to figure out that double standard, can I conclude that although women swear more than before, they don’t actually like being sworn at? “Yes, that’s pretty much my observation. They don’t shrug it off like men do. It’s still not an integral part of our female culture as it is with men, so in certain circumstances it goes down badly and is considered offensive and upsetting.” Susan responded.

Ava Diamond drew my attention to The Cost of Bad Behavior by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, where they suggest that the lack of civility in the workplace, it is far more widespread than people realize and is having a profound negative economic effect to the tune of $300 billion.

With an increased incidence of women openly swearing, and the taboo of men swearing around women disappearing, to what extent does this increased tolerance of bad language contribute to the existence of stressful and hostile working environments? The CIPD suggests “Employers can ensure professional language in the workplace by having a well drafted policy on bullying and harassment that emphasises how bad language can potentially amount to harassment or bullying.”

But will a workplace handbook be enough? This culture comes from the top. With swearing becoming more socially acceptable across the board in both men and women, how do senior managers define limits, especially in culturally diverse organisations? Or is setting a zero-tolerance policy the only workable solution?

Part of it comes by leading by example from senior men and women alike.

What do you think?