Leading a workplace civility workshop at a military base recently we got onto the topic of taking action. The topic at that point in the day was offensive humor.
The question was identifying where to draw the line. Some attempts at humor are unwelcomed, but tolerable. Some are annoying but not deserving of a response. But some cross a line into the realm that provokes a response. There is a point at which saying nothing ceases to be an option.
For one participant, the issue was racial humor. Over his long career, the organization had move seriously in increasing its active pursuit of diversity on race, culture, and gender. Actively supporting diversity was both a personal value for the speaker as well as an institutional value for the organization. He could not tolerate hearing someone to violate that standard. It would provoke an immediate response.
Another participant, a father of a child with Down’s syndrome, felt compelled to respond to anyone using the term, retarded, in an attempt at humor or teasing.
Did authority matter? At first, the response was that it did not matter. They would call a person of higher rank as readily as they would a peer.
But then a participant noted an occasion in which she let offensive humor from a superior pass. She would have challenged a peer, but it was more difficult to challenge someone of higher rank.
The consensus was that taking a stand is tougher as a lone individual. Following the theme for this series, workplace issues call for a combination of individual, workgroup, and organizational efforts. Establishing a standard of conduct on offensive humor works much better as group conversation and shared action than as individual initiative. Clear and rigorously monitored organizational values strengthen action as well. The mission is not for one individual to set the rules for others but for a workgroup to find common ground on which they can crack a joke and share a laugh, while staying within the realm of civil, respectful behavior.
How do you know when to take a stand?