People say stupid and offensive things in the office. It’s normal. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that acceptable use policies won’t prevent daft comments, but they will help you to shut down the attention-seeking martyrs who try to blow stupid comments well out of proportion.
I don’t want to make assumptions about the rest of the world, but I think I have a fairly good lock on modern American culture. I feel confident that that no one in the USA ever offers a passing stranger a cheerful ‘Happy Pearl Harbor Day!’ on 7th December. There are no Peal Harbour day parties (at least, none that I’ve ever been invited to). People don’t decorate their homes, don costumes or gather round the telly to watch treasured TV programmes. 
That being said, I’m sure that the greeting card industry would delight in having another event to celebrate with overpriced and unnecessary festivities. I’m certain that some ambitious intern somewhere has already earnestly proposed repurposing leftover Valentine’s Day products as Pearl Harbor-themed content. I shudder to think how that might play out if the gormless twit’s proposal was put into production: Imagine receiving a glossy card in the post with a cartoon Nakajima dive bomber laden with ordnance and a speech balloon that says, ‘Of all the ships at anchor, I’d bomb you!’ That’d be a heart-warming and festive personal note, right?
Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m against the commercialization of the Pearl Harbor attacks. I think it’d not only be a bloody stupid idea, but that most veterans would consider it to be a darned offensive commercialization of a sombre event. The very idea strikes me as inappropriate, tasteless, crass and a bit boorish. I wouldn’t buy into it.
Fortunately, we don’t have to. I’d guess that we haven’t seen Pearl Harbor Day products on store shelves because some executive somewhere in the hallowed halls of Hallmark took one look at the prototypes and immediately ran all evidence of the proposal through the nearest shredder. Wiser heads prevailed, and the offensive proposal was properly done away with. I doubt, however, that the offender was sacked for his or her good idea. They busy little intern is probably still hard at work trying to invent new ideas for increasing consumer spending on Malcolm X Day.
That’s what I’m focused on this week: appropriate and inappropriate reactions to offensive content encountered in the workplace. This is a pretty common problem, and it affects pretty much everyone, regardless of industry niche. Given enough people in one place, someone is bound to say or do something daft eventually. Preventing it isn’t nearly as important as dealing with it properly.
To be fair, some offensive content comes from well-meaning employees who don’t recognize a terrible idea as such because they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. There are plenty of adults who lack the perspective needed to grasp why some subjects should be considered out-of-bounds. This ignorance could have come about thanks to a wholly-inadequate education, from impaired empathy or just as a result of a simple misunderstanding. Most of the time, I’m inclined to be charitable with these folks and assume that their insensitivity is a product of simple ignorance rather than deliberate malevolence. These people are relatively easy to deal with.
Then we have the sort of people who know full well that what they’re saying is probably offensive and press on anyway. These are usually people who take pleasure in making others uncomfortable; people who enjoy pushing the boundaries of good taste. They toy with shocking content deliberately in order to provoke a reaction. These are the kids who told ‘dead baby jokes’ on the primary school playground; they grow up to become the adults who make similar unsettling jokes in the company canteen. They frequently cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable, always eager to push as far as they can get away with. You’d think that these jokers would be a lot harder to deal with, but they really aren’t; it takes some effort and patience to set their boundaries, and they’re usually fine thereafter.
You might think that deliberately offensive people are the reason why companies craft acceptable use policies (AUPs). AUPs are pre-emptive policy statements that set boundaries ahead of time for employee conduct and communications while on company property, when conducting company business and when communicating over company information systems. Most AUPs are written in such a way as to expressly forbid any and all potentially offensive content from being created on, stored on or transmitted over company networks. It would seem logical to assume that the first AUP writers intended to warn everyone where the ‘red lines’ were, but that’s probably not the case.
I’ve found that AUPs and similar user behaviour policies usually aren’t written to address the people who tell potentially-offensive jokes… Rather, they’re written specifically to defend the company against a small (but militant) type of attention-seeking employee who regularly freaks out and generates drama for everyone else whenever they encounter anything that they decide is offensive.
Here in the USA, this is a cherished vocation. We have scads of university students and working adults who have dedicated their lives to being perpetually outraged at everyone else, all of the time. These professional victims (a.k.a. ‘pearl clutchers’) feign indignation in public in order to gain a tactical advantage over rivals and adversaries. Their game is relatively straightforward: employee A says or does something to employee B that triggers the self-appointed victim’s call to action. It only takes one tasteless joke, risqué cartoon or snatch of banter to get management, HR, legal and the press involved in a humiliating inquiry. A few recent examples come immediately to mind:
- Back in April, a sales manager at the Bank of Ireland was terminated for sending racy e-mails around the office.
- Two years ago, a director for a New York-based company got herself fired for tweeting a tasteless AIDS joke.
- In January, a stockbroker in Bristol was sacked for tweeting about hitting a cyclist while driving to work.
In all three of these events, an employee made a joke to one or more people that offended one or more people other than the intended recipient who read it. That’s the key: the people to whom the quip was meant understood that nature of the tasteless quip. Other people then got involved and wheeled in the drama generators. That negative publicity, in turn, inspired each company to immediately terminate their joker. Problem solved? Not even vaguely. Terminations may have sated the bloodthirsty complainers, but they weren’t just punishments – because they weren’t in any way proportional to the offenses committed.
I understand why each of the three jokers needed a sharp rap on the knuckles for saying something that embarrassed their company, but… terminated? That’s bloody ridiculous! At worst, each of these people should have been given an administrative punishment – something like being made to alphabetize all the file cabinets on a Saturday – and then warned to keep a low profile for six to 12 months until the furor died down. They deserved a chastisement that was in line with the actual impact of their actions; something that included achievable measures for returning to the fold as wiser and more mature contributors. They certainly didn’t warrant career death, sans appeal.
Unfortunately, each of the companies cited above reacted much too quickly and (I believe) too harshly and I suspect that they did it to ease the pain of the drama being forced upon them by one or more angry agitators. A little perspective might have made it clear that the offending employees could have been easily and cheaply rehabilitated. They each made a correctable mistake, so corrective action was called for. Taking their heads was ridiculously out of proportion to the actual harm that they inflicted. They offended some people; they didn’t inflict any actual physical harm.
I can guess how the firing decisions probably played out, though. Someone in each of the affected companies heard about what had happened, saw the joker’s blunder as a great opportunity to advance their own brand at the joker’s expense and then threw a massive public fit, demanding retribution. The pearl-clutching ‘victim’ expressed that they were mortally offended and could only be appeased with the offender’s removal. If their version of justice wasn’t served, then they’d be sure to arrange tons of bad press. The company’s brand would be tarnished. In the end, the powers that be probably elected to cave in and give the self-righteous complainer the offender’s head as tribute in order to forestall their righteous wrath. These were little more than good old-fashioned American witch-hunts: if sue has a nicer house than Mary, then Mary will convince the town to hang Sue for witchcraft (and give Mary Sue’s house, since Sue doesn’t need it any more).
As you can tell, I’m strongly opposed to giving professional martyrs what they demand. The one’s that I’ve crossed swords with have been little better than bureaucratic terrorists: hypocrites who threaten their community with violent, apocalyptic rhetoric in order to turn minor grievances into cataclysmic spectacles. People who insist that management conform to all of their demands or else. There’s no hope of negotiating with these people because they don’t truly want any sort of meaningful change. There’s no way to reach a reasonable settlement with them because their objective is to eliminate or to weaken their rivals rather than restore any sort of social equilibrium. These are pure, cynical opportunists, playing at being a victim. Some of them even start to believe their own hype after a few successful character assassinations attempts.
I’ve found that many of these fake martyrs are easy to identify in the workplace. They’re frequently the loudest and most strident ‘defenders’ of other people, and will swiftly insinuate themselves into others’ problems, often eclipsing the actual wronged party to make the situation all about themselves. They wrap themselves in righteousness, desperately seek out ‘wounds’ of their own (to justify their rage) and demand that management grant them a peculiar strain of justice that never seems to involve due process, evidence or dispassionate analysis. Theirs is a ruinous tactic, one that’s insidiously corrosive to good order and discipline throughout large swathes of a company. Not only do they fail to secure any sort of positive change in their organisation, they undermine management’s authority to regulate employee conduct. They often destroy the real victims’ reputations in the process, the way that a parasite drains its host before jumping to a new one (and there’s always a new cause to hijack).
What’s exceptionally frustrating about these fake martyrs is that the causes that they pretend to champion are usually quite easily managed… provided that management has the moral courage needed to address the disputed conduct directly. Usually, a quiet word to the offender is enough to inspire an honest apology. Problem sorted. There’s no need for drama or spectacle.
In that respect, it’s very much like my tongue-in-cheek example of kawaii Pearl Harbor Day. We (as consumers) can simply refuse to buy the offensive products. We don’t have to rend our garments and wail, bemoaning our tortured fate in front of an audience. We don’t need to pass laws preventing manufacturers from making such products, or banning retailers from selling them.
There are always going to be some fake martyrs to who try to take advantage of such a situation for their own aggrandizement: people who never served a day in uniform, yet somehow manage to embody the suffering of all veterans everywhere as a token proxy victim. These opportunists would raise an unnecessary fuss and demand compensation on behalf of all the wronged parties… who didn’t ask for and don’t want their ‘help’. Those of us who served know full-well that all that we need to do to address such an insulting message is to call the idea out as stupid, and then walk away.
Similarly, when it comes to tacky and tasteless jokes made in the office, there’s neither a need nor a benefit to loudly dragging a cross through the halls like a Christian martyr on the path to Golgotha. Drama doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t help anything, and doesn’t heal anyone. We can simply reject the would-be joker’s failed attempt at humour and move on. A recipient can delete the offending comment and rebuke the joker’s poor judgment. A manger, in turn, can scold the offender, re-set his or her understanding of where the boundary lies between acceptable and unacceptable humour in the workplace, and force the offender to get the *#&$ back to work. There’s no need to drag HR, legal, public relations, an arbitration board and a TV news crew into the valueless fray.
Contrary to everything that the fake martyrs in our community tell us, we don’t need histrionics to address offensive speech. We can sort ourselves out by rebuking the people, places and products that insult us, by rejecting their speech and by disengaging the speaker. We always have the power to ignore those things that offend us that don’t actually harm us.
That’s why I prefer to write and enforce AUPs that treat workers like they’re all responsible adults (until proven otherwise). I believe strongly that no one in a company has a divine right to be protected from potential or actual hurt feelings – either their own, or others feels by proxy. Existence ensures that everyone, everywhere is inevitably going to get offended by something, somehow. Learning to deal with offensive content is part of every thinking creature’s natural evolution from childhood to adulthood. By the time a person reaches the workforce, they should be reasonably proficient at letting unwelcome comments wash over them.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that workers or bosses have the right to act deliberately nasty towards one another; unwanted sexual advancement, racial slurs and all that other wicked nonsense warrant a swift kick in the teeth.  Rather, I’m arguing that sound employee conduct policy needs to clearly cover two core concepts: first, that everyone is responsible for what they say (and type and tweet, etc.) while they’re on the clock. If a speaker offends, then he or she needs to apologize. Second, and more importantly, no one has the right to wield his or her indignation like a truncheon to terrorize his or her fellows. If you’re offended by something that someone else says, then look your offender in the eye, explain why he or she was out of bounds and then get the hell back to work. Walk it off.
 We Americans celebrate Labor Day, after all, and that doesn’t correspond to any actual dates, events, or people – just a general concept of ‘labor’ as being a good thing. But we don’t. We barely celebrate Veterans Day as it is. 
 Also known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, depending on where in the world you are at the time.
 Sometimes metaphorically, sometimes not.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.