Samar Yanni is Head of Membership and Professional Standards at the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment. Stella Chandler is director of Focal Point Training
A recent survey by the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment and Focal Point gave shocking results about the impact of pranks in the workplace.
Before we delve into the statistics, it’s important to be clear about what we mean by a joke. Ask people for a definition, and many will pick the positives, such as “laughing with colleagues” or “jokes that bond the team.”
But when jokes cross the line, they can have a very damaging effect, raising barriers rather than breaking them down, making people feel singled out and often excluded from the team environment.
But how do we know where that 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 run the gamut of inappropriate jokes. There are some shocking examples of overtly sexist and racist behaviour. But there are also several responses that show that comments don’t have to break the Equality Act to be truly demeaning and hurtful, such as comments about weight, appearance or accent.
There are two common denominators 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 evidenced by respondents’ comments. The other is that people who have somehow crossed the line often have little or no awareness of that impact. Most of us do not set out to be deliberately harmful or malicious; rather we don’t stop to think about the effect our behavior can have on others.
And because we don’t open up these discussions about what’s okay and what’s not in our workplaces, and in the absence of guidelines or conversations to guide a proper path, people will continue to think that what they do is okay.
The bottom line
For the individual, the impact is mainly around self-esteem and their confidence to contribute. The survey results show that 40% of people said that when jokes were directed at them it affected how they felt about themselves and, critically, people who were uncomfortable with the jokes felt that it had affected your ability to talk to your manager about your mental health.
We see this time and time again in our workshops. One participant told us that he had worked in a company as a middle boss, highly respected for his knowledge and technical skills. But he is shorter than average and was made fun of, often directed by his manager. At a company awards ceremony, her manager asked her to stand up to receive an award. He stood up, only for the manager to joke, “Come on Dan, I said stand up!”
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It is easy to see the humiliation of this “joke” when we look at it from a distance, but this kind of “joke” had been going on for a long time. Not only did no one step in, but it was actively led by a senior manager, and so it escalated, with many team members joining in. He was picked on for his physical appearance, day after day, Dan began. to avoid interacting with his peers 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 joke meetings, 60% present fewer ideas, and a third have looked for a new job.
A culture of banter that crosses the line will affect creativity, productivity and retention. It gets to the bottom line.
And if there’s still any doubt about how serious this can be, recent research by GQ Littler shows that there has been a 45% increase in workplace prank court claims over the past two years.
None of us want to be labeled a killjoy, one who can’t take a joke. Power imbalances also complicate situations. Despite all the organizational talk about creating ‘speak up’ cultures, our experience is that people are still reluctant to raise a concern or report inappropriate behaviour.
The Institute of Business Ethics conducted research on this at its own Ethics survey at work in 2018. They asked, “What stops people from speaking up?”
26% said they did not believe corrective action would be taken, 26% said it would alienate their colleagues, and 33% said it could jeopardize their jobs.
When inappropriate jokes become the default behavior on a team, it makes it very difficult for someone to say “I don’t like that” or “I find that pretty offensive.” People then feel left out because they don’t want to participate in the so-called pranks or feel singled out for being on the receiving end of constant “jokes”. When inappropriate behavior is first tolerated and then accepted as such, it becomes the culture. And it gives others license to behave in even more inappropriate ways.
The good news is that there is growing recognition that an organization’s culture is critical to its performance. The Financial Information Council is clear the role of the boards in the formation and dissemination of culture.
Many organizations take time to develop a set of values that underpin behavior, interaction and decision-making. But we must go further. Organizations must ensure that senior leadership teams and HR teams lead from the front through their own behavior. The survey showed that trust in human resources to take action is quite low.
It’s not enough to give someone on your team a “dignity at work” policy to read. They will always follow what happens every day as a team. And unless we have conversations around the gray areas of jokes, people won’t know how their comments can affect others, or how to handle situations that make people uncomfortable.
Although it is not an easy area to navigate, it is possible to bring clarity through discussion and use practical tools and real phrases that can cut situations off guard. Our survey shows the compelling moral and business reasons to put this at the top of the agenda.