Have you heard the one about…

By Tom D'Amico
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/16/2002

When it comes to sexism in the workplace, harassment can be very obvious — pinching, grabbing, touching — but it can also be much more subtle. Innuendoes, condescending or patronizing behaviour, hints for sexual favours are all forms of harassment. So too are jokes.

We’ve all heard jokes that target sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion. It’s only a joke, right? No harm done.

The truth is homophobic, sexist or bigoted jokes can be harmful and it’s important for the organization’s leaders to make it clear they are unacceptable. Not doing so confirms the toleration of the remarks as acceptable to the dominant culture.

Jokes about sexual orientation often go unchallenged because people fear they will be ostracized for challenging the perceived status quo.

The following popular myths often need to be debunked in the workplace:

Myth:

“Nobody’s hurt by sexual jokes. You have to be tough in today’s world.”

Reality:

Most people do not realize the extent of pain and torment caused by a seemingly harmless joke. Most people respond with empathy if shown how their jokes put down, hurt and denigrate others.

Myth:

“I’m adding to a positive work environment, my jokes are funny.”

Reality:

The question should not be whether the jokes are funny or not. The scenarios may indeed be humorous but that is not justification for telling them. People need to be made aware of what they are laughing at. If the basis for the humour is ridicule and the belittlement of a group of people, then the jokes are not appropriate.

Myth:

“I didn’t mean to insult anyone.”

Reality:

Generally people do not tell inappropriate jokes to deliberately hurt a co-worker; nor do they understand the agony and distress they cause. These jokes create and reinforce negative stereotypes and contribute to the creation of a poisoned workplace.

Myth:

“You can’t stop staff from telling jokes.”

Reality:

The act of telling a sexual or bigoted joke is not appropriate behaviour, and is not conducive to a healthy work environment. Such behaviour should not be permitted in the workplace, and should be prohibited, as would any expression of a more obvious racial slur.

Beyond jokes, attitudes and behaviours in the workplace are often shaped by resentment of promotions and hiring perceived to be based on gender or race. Failure to address these attitudes and behaviours will result in a less productive workplace.

A proactive approach to creating a discrimination-free workplace requires a systematic course of action beginning with full understanding of the issues and education.

Training is one part but truly healthy workplaces require constant maintenance to ensure discrimination and harassment are not contributing to a poison work environment.

Will education re-socialize employees who have been raised in an environment that condones sexism, bigotry or homophobia? Often at the core of discrimination are deeply entrenched notions of hierarchies and relations rooted in broader structures of society.

A one-day training session will not eliminate all of the issues associated with discrimination and harassment, but it will provide a starting point for awareness, dialogue and constructive change in the workplace.

Tom D’Amico is general manager of Malkam Cross-Cultural Training, a provider of cross-cultural communication, diversity and employment equity training. Visit www.malkam.com for more information.

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