Workplace and Public Life Are Now The Same
Q: I worked for a church that seemed to have a fun, relaxed environment. Employees in our office used to kid a lot, and it was never frowned on. All of us in our office periodically joked that if we were of the same religion as members of their church, they would treat us better. Everyone always laughed because in the context of our conversation, it was clearly a joke. Someone overheard me commenting on it one day and reported me. I was fired because of it. Since each of us had periodically kidded about that, I was shocked that I was let go for such a remark.
I told them I loved my job and that we had all joked about it sometimes, but they said it did not matter. I was the one who was reported for it. I don't know who reported me; it was not someone in our immediate office. Maybe it was someone walking by. What do I do now that I can't convince them?
A: The saying is there is no such thing as a joke. Beneath every criticism, even when delivered with laughter, lies a truth. Accusing a person or an organization of discrimination is not a topic that should cause laughter. In today's environment, where hate crimes have increased toward a variety of groups, all people -- whether in school or working at a for-profit or nonprofit organization -- should be knowledgeable and maintain a heightened awareness of what creates offensive behavior. This subject doesn't pertain only to religion, color, race, nationality and gender; it extends to any comment that criticizes or mocks a person for a disability or any unusual or unappealing appearance.
You may have thought your officemates equally shared the same opinions and sense of humor, but your comment might have crossed the line for a co-worker who has not openly admitted anger about repeatedly hearing it. Also, laughter in numbers on a potentially sensitive subject does not make it right.
If the statement had been true, that the church discriminated against an employee who was not of its same religious beliefs, the employee may be able to legitimately file a charge against the church or the head of the department who encouraged such behavior. Many employers include rules pertaining to such behavior in their employee handbooks. They also may have either the head of human resources or one of its representatives explain to their employees the definition of discrimination, hostile environment and harassment so they learn what is -- and what is not -- acceptable at work.
Acceptable behavior may not end the minute an employee leaves the premises. Employees have been fired for lude, drunken, disruptive or violent behavior at public establishments, as well as Facebook postings that are inappropriate and potentially harmful to the image of the organization. One example took place at a drinking establishment where an employee stripped publicly, which was later reported to the company. That behavior, too, resulted in the woman's employment termination.
Confine wild or undesirable behavior to your home; it's best and even expected to behave rationally and decently in public. It was recently reported there are 5.2 billion mobile phones in the world, and 83% of those 5.2 billion have cameras. Additionally, 90% of people have only taken photos with a cellphone's camera. It may be considered a common pastime, or perhaps an obsession.
Know that once you leave your home and step out into the world, you are in public and may be caught on camera engaged in all sorts of acts -- from funny to sad to shocking to disgusting, and even to illegal. Others may see you even though you don't see them. With this new reality, you still have a choice. When in public, behave acceptably or risk the chance of being exposed.
Email career and life coach: Lindsey@LindseyNovak.com with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit www.lindseynovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.