My column, Workplace Referee, is designed to help employees and managers gain better insight into each other's point of view (POV). Have a situation you'd like me to address? Please submit it by email here. Don't worry, I'll keep your identity private.
My Boss Has A Disturbing Sense Of Humor
Employee POV: I like my job. However, I think my boss is a creep. His humor is always at the expense of other people. He teases everyone. Nobody is spared. He claims he's joking, but it always sounds like a put-down to the person. He loves zeroing in on people's differences and teasing them. In my case, he makes comments about what I eat. I'm a vegetarian. He'll say things like, "I'm sure Sarah won't want to come grab a burger with us for lunch. Plus, we wouldn't want her picketing the joint for cruelty to animals." Because he says it with a smile and a light laugh, the thinks he can get away with it. If I go to HR to complain, I know they'll tell him. I'm afraid he'll just focus on me more. I feel totally stuck. Now, I'm just hoping to get promoted to another department.
Manager POV: My employees are all really serious. The work we do can be intense, so I try to lighten them up with some humor. But, a few of them are real sticks in the mud. Sarah in particular. I can see she doesn't like my humor. She's never been a manager before and doesn't understand it's my job to make sure everyone is staying upbeat. I can't help it if she is too uptight. However, if she keeps making those sour looks every time I make a joke, I may have to pull her aside and give her a performance warning. Her negative response isn't good for morale.
Who's at fault?
There's a saying, "Everyone thinks they have taste and a sense of humor." In this case, the difference in opinion as to what is funny is causing some serious issues. I can't tell you how many discrimination and harassment lawsuits have stemmed from situations like this. They are expensive, messy, and nobody wins. Employees who speak up get labeled "whistle blowers" and struggle to find employment after filing suit. Meanwhile, the manager loses their job and often doesn't learn their lesson.
What can both sides learn from this?
In this situation, I would advise each side as follows:
Employee Takeaway: Your boss isn't going to change, so if you can't move to another department soon, start looking for a new job. It's clear you two aren't meant to work together long-term. Additionally, begin documenting the disturbing comments. Keep a log of dates, who heard it, and what was said. Should you find yourself being called to the table by him for your attitude, you would then be able to bring these comments to the attention of HR in your defense. Why am I not advising you to go to HR now? Because while you may get him fired, you'll likely find yourself out of a job too. Companies tend to clear both parties out of the office in situations like this. Unfortunate, but true.
Manager Takeaway: Consider taking a sensitivity and discrimination course. While your approach to humor hasn't been called out in your career so far, all it takes is one lawsuit to send you tumbling down. Companies aren't going to support you just because you've worked for them for a long time. Employers don't like being sued. You'll be dropped faster than a hot biscuit. Especially, as you get older where there's an expectation you should be wiser. Using edgy, controversial humor while in a management role is risky.