Samar Yanni is Deputy Director of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment and Head of Membership and Professional Standards. Stella Chandler is Director at Focal Point Training
A recent investigation from the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment and Focal Point reported shocking results on the impact of jokes in the workplace.
Before we dive into the statistics, it’s important to be clear about what we mean by joking. Ask people for a definition and many will choose the positives, such as “fun with co-workers” or “jokes that bring the team together.”
But when banter crosses the line, it can have an extremely detrimental effect, erecting barriers rather than breaking them down, making people feel isolated and often excluded from the team environment.
But how do we know where this tipping point is? A simple answer is when it makes others uncomfortable.
We asked respondents for examples of jokes that made them feel uncomfortable, and their experiences show the full range of inappropriate jokes. There are shocking examples of openly sexist and racist behavior. But there are also several answers that show that comments don’t have to be in violation of the Equality Act to be really shabby and painful, like comments about weight, appearance, or accent.
There are two common denominators that we see in the work we do with organizations in this area. One is the negative and often devastating impact it can have on others, as respondents’ comments show. The other is that people who have crossed the line in one way or another usually have little or no awareness of that impact. Most of us don’t seek to be deliberately hurtful or malicious; rather, we don’t stop to think about the effect our behavior may have on others.
And because we don’t open up these discussions about what’s OK and what’s not in our workplaces, and in the absence of guidelines or conversations to steer an appropriate path, people will continue to think what they are doing is good.
The bottom line
For the individual, the impact is mainly around self-esteem and their confidence to contribute. Survey results show that 40% of people said that when jokes were directed at them, it affected how they felt about themselves and, most importantly, people who felt uncomfortable about jokes felt it impacted their ability to talk to their manager about their mental health.
We see it time and time again in our workshops. One participant told us that he had worked in a company as a middle manager, highly respected for his technical knowledge and skills. But he’s shorter than average and has been teased about it – often directed by his manager. At a corporate award show, her manager asked her to stand up to receive an award. He stood up, only for the director to joke, “Come on Dan, I said stand up!”
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It’s easy to see the humiliation of such a “joke” when viewed from afar, but this kind of “gossip” had been going on for quite some time. Not only was no one intervening, but it was being actively led by a senior manager, and so it escalated, with many team members joining in. Being singled out for his physical appearance, day in and day out, devastated Dan – he started out to avoid interacting with co-workers and eventually felt so undermined by it that he left.
This also shows the impact at the organizational level. Our survey tells us that 69% contribute less to meetings because of jokes, 60% come up with fewer ideas and a third have looked for a new job.
A culture of banter that crosses boundaries will impact creativity, productivity, and retention. It hits the bottom line.
And if there is still any doubt about the seriousness of this situation, the recent research by GQ Littler shows that there has been a 45% increase in claims in court citing workplace jokes over the past 2 years.
None of us want to be called a killjoy, the one who can’t stand a joke. Power imbalances also complicate situations. Despite all the organizational talk about creating “speaking up” cultures, our experience is that people are still reluctant to raise a concern or speak out against inappropriate behavior.
The Institute of Business Ethics has researched this in its Workplace Ethics Survey in 2018. He asked, “What keeps people from talking?”
Twenty-six percent said they didn’t think corrective action would be taken, 26% said they would distance themselves from colleagues, and 33% said it could jeopardize their work.
When inappropriate banter becomes the default behavior on a team, it’s very hard for someone to say, “I don’t like that” or “I find this all pretty offensive.” People then feel marginalized because they don’t want to take part in the so-called jokes or they feel singled out because they are the butt of “jokes” all the time. When inappropriate behavior is first tolerated and then accepted in this way, it becomes the culture. And it gives others the right to behave even more inappropriately.
The good news is that it is increasingly recognized that an organization’s culture is critical to its performance. The Financial Reporting Council is clear on the role of councils shaping and reporting culture.
Many organizations take time to develop a set of values that underpin behavior, interaction, and decision-making. But we must go further. Organizations need to ensure that leadership teams and HR teams lead the way through their own behavior. The survey showed that trust in HR to act is quite low.
It’s not enough to give someone on your team a “dignity at work” policy to read. They will always be inspired by what happens daily in the teams. And unless we have conversations around the gray areas of jokes, people won’t know how their comments might impact others, or how to handle situations that make people feel uncomfortable.
Although this is not an easy area to navigate, it is possible to bring clarity through discussion and the use of practical tools and down-to-earth phrases that can nip situations in the bud. Our investigation shows the compelling moral and business reasons for putting this at the top of the agenda.