Sunday, February 24, 2008

Don't Joke in Britain

We read:

"When it comes to making your co-workers laugh, tread carefully. Sometimes even a great joke can lead to the punch line "you're fired." The daily grind has always been fertile ground for practical jokes, witty one-liners, rude gags and general clowning around. But it is becoming harder to avoid crossing the line into offensive territory, due in part to the ease of electronic communication and the workplace's growing attunement to cultural diversity and worker sensitivity.

Take the PR Newswire employee fired last month for using the term "loony-bin-rally" to slug a press release about a march for mental illness. The company published an apology saying it deeply regretted the "error" and understood how "such terminology feeds the prejudice and discrimination associated with mental illnesses."

Then there was the European head of Barclaycard--the credit card arm of Barclays --who lost his job last month, allegedly because of a gag that offended fellow employees. According to The Daily Telegraph, Marc Howells was discussing quarterly results with his staff when he told the following joke: "The results were like Muslims--some were good, some were Shi'ite."

It may be difficult to determine when the punishment fits the crime, but there is no doubt jokes are dangerous creatures in an office environment. Careless e-mails build up a trail of evidence that can look 10 times worse when closely analyzed and wrenched out of context. An offhand riposte about a co-worker can worm its way through the office, resulting in an official complaint or even disciplinary action if there is the suspicion of discrimination.

Which begs the question: Is it even worth making a joke at work anymore? Not according to British writer Toby Young, whose 2003 book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People chronicled his many failed attempts to charm co-workers at Vanity Fair through humor. "It is a risk that simply isn't worth taking," said Young