Many of us spend a good part of our waking time at work, and most people would recognise that a work place with no humour would be a sad place to be. In addition, a recent study by academics at Yale University concluded that a worker or boss who successfully uses humour is seen by their colleagues as both confident and competent, which in turn increases his or her status. The study also found that telling good jokes requires good timing, and the ability to judge the distinction between what is humorous and what is offensive – and that is sometimes a very fine line which has to be looked at in context. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also concluded that a person who tells bad jokes is likely to be seen as confident, but also as being incompetent.
There is of course always a risk with any joke, however well told and innocently intended, that it causes offence to one or more listeners. This could simply be aggravating and potentially lead to a deterioration or breakdown in the relationship between the parties, or could lead to claims of discrimination. This can of course take many forms, for example sex, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, age, race or religion. I have personally advised in a number of cases where one person’s joke has led to claims being made against the company. One extreme example which springs to mind was an employer who was told in confidence by an employee that she was pregnant. The next day he hung a banner in the workplace saying “Jane’s up the duff” – not her real name! Needless to say “Jane” was not happy, and brought a claim of sex discrimination against the company. We settled!
I have also heard of lots of other tales of jokes which have gone wrong. In one case, an employer was found to have discriminated against an employee on the grounds of age when the employee was made redundant close to what would have been his retirement age (when compulsory retirement was permitted). In reaching this conclusion, the Tribunal was influenced by ageist “jokes” which had been made about and to the employee, including altering the number plate on his car with black tape so that the letters OAB read OAP. It is unlikely that this incident in itself would have amounted to discrimination, but it does show how a practical joke like this could have serious consequences. Indeed, when age discrimination first came in, some people warned that sending a birthday card could amount to discrimination, and one local authority was reported to have banned them. Fortunately, common sense has prevailed and to my knowledge there have been no cases reported on this. Indeed, when I turned 60 my colleagues produced an inflatable Zimmer frame for me – but I did not take offence, they just had foresight!
In another reported case, an employee with 20 years’ unblemished service was dismissed for bringing an offensive mug into the workplace. He had had a mug engraved with the words “Lanky B*t*h” as a present for a colleague who had recently split up with his very tall girlfriend. That colleague did not take exception, but a female consultant who also happened to be very tall, saw it and took offence. The company had a zero tolerance policy towards offensive material and dismissed the prankster. It does seem harsh to take away someone’s livelihood after all those years, but the dismissal is likely to fair in law if the policy was published and the employer followed a fair procedure.
In conclusion, let’s keep humour in the workplace – as I said at the outset, a workplace with no humour would be a sad place. That said, people should be sensible and mindful of their colleagues’ sensitivities so as to avoid potential repercussions. We recommend having an up to date Equal Opportunities policy, keeping it up to date, and ensuring that all staff receive training on it. We can help with all of this – do get in touch if you would like to discuss it further.
If you would like to talk through a situation you are dealing with, or if you need advice on any aspect of employment law, please contact any member of the Pure Employment Law team (01243 836840 or [email protected]).