One subject we neglected in our August fun package is the entertainment value of e-mail: specifically links to YouTube videos and other examples of online hilarity. (Personal recent favorite: Medieval Tech Support. Personal all-time favorite: Strindberg and Helium). We left it out because of space constraints and also because the enjoyment of such material seems like an individual rather than organizational pursuit. But there are political nuances to almost everything that occurs in the office, and that includes the sharing of cat-playing-piano clips.
It's a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation. If the material's of questionable taste, you're almost certainly damned if you do. Every office probably has some median comfort zone for risqué humor, above which half of employees say, "that's funny" and below which half say, "that's sick." Consequently, you may get into trouble if you do send something remotely naughty to members of the "sick" brigade. That trouble will most likely be a chilly reply from the offended party ("It is inappropriate to distribute such filth in a place of business. If you must indulge your boorish nature please do so in the privacy of your own cesspool.") It could also conceivably be a lawsuit. I have no knowledge of anyone claiming harassment because of a link passed around office e-mail, but I presume it has happened somewhere. I do recall an episode of The Drew Carey Show in which Drew was sued by a colleague for displaying a comic strip of a caterpillar attempting coitus with a French fry. But even I—a former crossword puzzle editor for TV Guide--realize that sitcoms don't constitute valid legal precedent.
Damned if you don't is a trickier situation—and it applies to all humor, naughty or not. Sensible people don't broadcast stuff that amuses them far and wide. Instead, they send it to a list of select kindred spirits, who generally send them things in turn. I have several such lists representing different levels of sensitivity, senses of humor, and domains of interest. These lists do not align with any particular group of friends or people I like (although there's no one on any list that I don't like). You can't read the "To:" line on a link I send out and know whom I hang with at work or outside of it. That's how these things usually work.
Yet, some people regard such lists as proxies for friendship—or at least fellow feeling. If you work in a 12-person office and share jokes and videos with eight colleagues but not the other three—and if those three find out, they may feel hurt or rejected. If you are the boss in that office, those three may feel jealous or afraid for their jobs. Perhaps you're trying to spare their feelings. But you are also implicitly passing judgment on them. "This set of people likes what I like. This set of people doesn't."
I'm not saying don't be viral—just be sensitive when you're being viral. The people with whom you share jokes and links and videos constitute a network, and networks represent relationships: in this case, communities of kind. If you're going to have a club for the cool kids, be discreet about it. There's nothing so public as jokes on the Internet. But that doesn't mean you can't keep your enjoyment of them private.
I do realize, by the way, that perusing YouTube and its ilk isn't great use of company time. But so long as you don't employ hermits, employees will receive links from their friends, and some of them are too good not to share. And wouldn't you feel badly if no one shared them with you?
Last updated: Aug 6, 2007
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan