You might consider this a harmless joke - or not

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on August 1, 2000

If God had meant for women to be in the workplace, He would have given them brains. No, it’s not my joke, and the only reason I mention it here is to make a point. So please don’t flood my office with outraged letters or e-mail or, worse, “even funnier” sexist humor. Is this a funny joke? Certainly not if you’re a woman. But, frankly, it’s the type of humor that people share occasionally. I heard this particular remark during a lunch with three friends, including two women. It wasn’t meant to disparage these women, both of whom are highly regarded and well-respected professionals. But you can’t predict how someone will respond. Nor can you guess how a remark might be modified when repeated, with attribution, by others. A subtle shift of context or emphasis could turn a harmless quip into a slanderous insult.

Watch what you say
That’s why transportation managers — and all employees — must be extremely cautious about what they say in the presence of staff and coworkers, both men and women, whether in the office, at lunch or off the job. In fact, they need to avoid potentially offensive or discriminatory remarks in all of their communication, including e-mail, hard-copy memos and department newsletters. What brings this to light is the recent verdict in the case of four school bus drivers in Lexington, Ky., who successfully sued the district for gender and age bias. These women collected $100,000 in damages after a federal jury determined that a pattern of age and gender discrimination and a hostile work environment existed in the transportation department. During the trial, the women testified that comments made by the transportation director about women drivers as well as older drivers illustrated his biases. According to their lawyer, the drivers complained about the situation and were then harassed and passed over for promotions. The drivers also cited remarks in the department newsletter, “The Yellow Sheet,” that poked fun at women and the elderly. The drivers’ lawyer said the comments were not particularly damning when viewed individually, but created a pattern of harassment when viewed over several issues.

Where the line is drawn
How do you know when your remarks are offensive or harassing? That’s a tricky question. If you’re a supervisor, you might not be aware that you’re stepping over the line because your charges might be reluctant to tell you, for fear that you’ll retaliate. If someone does mention that he was offended by something you said or did, don’t be too quick to dismiss his complaint. Give him a chance to air his grievance — and listen. Yes, he may be overly sensitive, but you can’t change his feelings. Use common sense and good taste in determining what’s acceptable. Don’t be afraid to ask your district or company to offer sensitivity training to all employees. Some staff members may resent the implication that they need this type of training, but those are the ones who probably need it the most. Here’s a corollary to Murphy’s Law: Every time you utter something incredibly stupid and regrettable, the person who you least want to hear this will be standing within earshot. So, think twice before saying anything that could be construed as offensive, even when you’re among friends. You never know, someday those “friends” could be called to testify against you in federal court. Yes, you’re free to believe whatever you like, and, yes, you can express those beliefs with gusto. But how those remarks will be received — and tolerated — is out of your hands. Tread carefully, the path is getting narrower every day.

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