Every presidential race provides fodder for political jokes and cartoons. With a large and diverse field of candidates the 2008 contest provides plenty of material. Don’t let potentially offensive humor about presidential candidates land you or your business in hot water.
It’s the jokes that quickly circulate by email that worry me the most. One night last fall after I facilitated a day of training on harassment my husband asked me if I had seen the email joke going around that compared one of the presidential candidates with a figure from a scandal in a previous administration. I stepped up my warnings to employees and employers about passing on presidential campaign humor.
When I bring up the topic employees tell me, “It’s OK I sent the joke on my Yahoo account, I didn’t use the company email.” No it’s not OK when you use a company computer the email goes through the company server, even if you’re using a personal account. Then there is someone in the room who says, “I have a company issued laptop and permission to use it for myself and work, so I can send what I want.” Wrong again, the email sent on the laptop is still company property because the laptop is company property.
Big deal it’s just a joke and no one else is going to read it right? Wrong, just as fast as you can click send the person you sent it to can forward the joke to anyone with email and your name stays on the heading as a sender.
But I didn’t mean to offend anyone.” You innocently send the joke from your brother-in-law to a friend at another company they pass it on or just leave it open on their desk. Or someone reads it and forwards it to a co-worker adding the message, “I can’t believe she thought that joke was funny. The way it talks about women, blacks, Mormons, Christians, Baptists, Italians and white men is disgusting.” Perfect documentation has just been created that includes the, company name, senders name, the recipient and a message about what was found offensive. I wish all harassment/discrimination investigations were this easy!
Could one joke create the basis for a discrimination or harassment claim? Probably not. Can one joke help support a claim? Maybe. Should you discourage employees from sending jokes on company computers and stop sending them yourself? Absolutely. If you have an electronic communications policy remind employees that they have no right of privacy on company computers. If you don’t have a written policy you can still tell employees that all electronic communication on company computers is company property. Clearly communicate that passing on these offensive on-line jokes will not be tolerated.
We can’t control the potentially hostile environment during presidential candidate debates but we can keep it out of the workplace.