Casual Conversation vs. Offensive Conduct: Deciding Where to Draw the Line
by Tegan Jones
[Talent Management Magazine October 16, 2007 Volume 3, Issue 40]
Without laughter, the workday can really drag. Cracking jokes and exchanging witty banter with co-workers is part of what brings people to the office every day, but sometimes these jokes can go too far.
Although most companies offer some sort of training that outlines the difference between jokes and harassment and discrimination, almost half of employees involved in a recent survey reported experiencing questionable or offensive conduct at work.
In a recent study by J.J. Keller & Associates, a provider of risk and regulatory management, 80 percent of respondents said their company provides some sort of discrimination and harassment training, but 47 percent said banter in their organizations comes close to being offensive and potentially discriminatory.
These results show that although businesses are attempting to prevent workplace discrimination and harassment, many still might be experiencing a loss of productivity and deflated employee morale because of offensive conduct, said Edwin Zalewski, J.J. Keller & Associates human resources subject-matter expert.
And even when jokes or comments fall outside the realm of illegal discrimination, off-color or rude behavior still can have a negative effect on the workplace.
"Potentially, you could have more people calling in sick because they can't take the workday, as well as increased levels of stress, which could lead to health problems," he said. "These comments can significantly affect employee productivity and are certainly worth addressing, whether they cross the line into illegality or not."
There are three primary mistakes businesses make when dealing with discrimination and harassment training, Zalewski said.
First, many companies create written policies but then fail to communicate them effectively, and if the policy isn't communicated regularly, its existence can become meaningless, he said.
Also, although most businesses offer basic discrimination training during orientation, they frequently fail to follow up with regular refresher courses - employees need periodic reminders to remember company policies and regulations regarding this issue, Zalewski said.
Finally, without a consistently and effectively enforced policy to protect whistle-blowers against retaliation, questionable and potentially harmful conduct can continue and even escalate until it becomes illegal.
Along with communicating and enforcing their discrimination policies, companies need to train their supervisors and managers to recognize the wider effects questionable behavior might have on their workforce - it's important for managers to realize that although an event they witness might seem minor, it could be the tip of an iceberg, Zalewski said.
"Companies need to train their supervisors and managers not only to recognize offensive conduct in the workplace but to recognize that something they see may not be a one-time event," he said. "They need to recognize that there could be underlying issues going on and that other incidents may be affecting other people to a greater or lesser degree."
Although communicating consistent discrimination and harassment policies is critical, companies don't need to lose their sense of humor to create a comfortable workplace for everyone involved. By cultivating an open corporate culture that encourages employees to address offensive behavior, companies can help people be considerate of their co-workers' needs without cutting off casual conversations, Zalewski said.
"You don't have to have a strict policy where every nonwork-related comment needs to be evaluated and prohibited, but banter should be kept under control to the extent that it may become unlawful," Zalewski said. "Companies should communicate that employees need to recognize how their comments and jokes might be received by others."
[About the Author: Tegan Jones is an associate editor for Talent Management magazine.] From India, Coimbatore
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