Can you still have fun at work?
“You can’t say anything at work anymore without getting hauled up to HR”.
Heard this one before?
While it is true that employees in a supportive workplace should feel comfortable taking any concern to Human Resources, the statement above is an exaggeration.
Ideally, individuals will inform a co-worker of a behaviour they find offensive, and their co-worker will be responsive and respectful of their preferences. Developing a respectful, supportive workplace does not require removing all non-work discourse from workplaces and expecting people to act like automatons. The objective is to instill in all employees an understanding that a productive workplace requires allowing individuals with varying backgrounds, experiences and preferences to feel comfortable and respected so that they can carry on with their work without extraneous concerns.
Too often, this is viewed by employees as an all or nothing proposal - either act the way they prefer to act and expect others to accept that their conduct is not offensive, or focus solely on completing a work-related task and talk only about completing such tasks. Neither of these is a reasonable or realistic approach, and even those who will flippantly state “You can’t say anything at work anymore without getting hauled up to HR” probably know this.
That wort of reaction is a result of finding out that some of the things you do or say at work may not be OK, even though you were not informed in the past that these comments or behaviours were problematic. It is not an all or nothing proposition; the choice is not between “changing nothing and carrying on as before” and “only talk about work and never criticize anyone”.
I’ve always viewed these sorts of issues in terms of a scale. Let’s call it the Scale of Workplace Conduct. See below:
At one extreme, we have the perfect communicator, essentially a mind-reader who knows exactly what causes offence, and never makes a misstep. Maybe this person focuses on work and always gives 100% positive feedback that, miraculously, is always presented to and received by each particular recipient exactly in the way it was intended. I’m not sure any of these folks exist, and if they do, they’re extremely rare.
On the other extreme is conduct which would warrant immediate termination. This, too, is rare as compared to the bulk of daily workplace conduct.
Everything else is somewhere in between, and it is in this range that we find the vast majority of the behaviours we witness at work.
Within the green zone reside the behaviours that no reasonable person would find offensive. These include daily greetings, updates on the status or work, and the proper exercising of authority and supervisory responsibilities.
Behaviours that fall into the yellow area could go either way, and are a bit more risky in terms of potentially being inappropriate for the workplace. Comments or actions in this zone could be completely fine to some individuals, but offensive or inappropriate to others. Conduct falling into this zone would not be deemed serious misconduct, and should be resolvable through direct communication between co-workers, of perhaps some facilitation by another party.
I’ve intentionally placed “the line”, beyond which behaviours are probably or definitely inappropriate, past the center point of this section because even though there comes a point in the yellow zone where conduct is moving closer to definitely being inappropriate, most conduct within the yellow zone should be able to be resolved between co-workers, provided they take a mature and respectful approach to conflict resolution. While there is some space left in the yellow zone beyond “the line”, it is likely that fewer individuals would feel comfortable resolving issues that fall into the latter part of the yellow zone without some assistance. Behaviours in the yellow zone beyond “the line” may not be met with corrective action, but would likely be noted by Human Resources and/or management.
The red zone is reserved for workplace conduct that is definitely not appropriate. Behaviours in this zone would be clear violations of corporate policies, or repeated behaviours of conduct which originally fell into the yellow zone and which an individual was asked to discontinue. Behaviours in the red zone would likely result in corrective action and could potentially result in termination.
So, how can we better understand what is and is not OK to say or do at work? There is no guideline or set of rules that will perfectly fit every personality and every workplace, but there are corporate policies, and they should be followed. No policy can possibly account for all of the conduct that can occur in a workplace, so individuals should understand and be receptive to the preferences of those they work with. If a comment is met with a reaction which may indicate that it was not taken as intended (or a statement indicating this), it is better to take that into account and make adjustments as opposed to expecting the recipient to adjust their reaction.
Try asking yourself, “am I really worse off by not saying or doing that?” There are also the tried and true questions such as “would I be comfortable saying or doing this if I knew: my boss would find out/my parents and partner would find out/it was going to be on the front page of the local newspaper”.
Here’s a simple example: If you see a movie or comedian and profane language is used, talking to co-workers about the activity and letting them know you enjoyed it would fall into the green zone. Discussing the content or subject matter of the movie scenes/jokes would likely be in the yellow zone, and repeating the movie lines or jokes in the workplace is likely to fall into the red zone. In this scenario, you are safer to stick to the basic details that keep you in the green zone.
Can you still have fun at work? Yes, of course you can. You simply need to take the time to consider the impact of your conduct before acting and adjust accordingly.