The glitz, glamour, and celebratory nature of last night’s Academy Awards were dimmed by the ongoing controversy about the total lack of racial diversity among Oscar contenders for the last two years. In response, Chris Rock delivered a scathing monologue criticizing the Academy and its members, the large majority of whom are white and male. As the audience laughed and squirmed in their seats, Rock repeatedly hammered the Hollywood establishment, using humor as a platform to express the collective outrage of the #OscarsSoWhite protest movement.
Of course, exploiting sensitive subjects like race, religion, gender, and age are all in a day’s work for professional comedians like Rock. They enjoy the unfettered privilege of offending the hell out of absolutely everyone so long as it gets a laugh. For the rest of us, however, such divisive humor (even when it is targeted at white males) has no place at work and should be avoided at all costs.
In its “Best Practices and Tips to Employees” for preventing discrimination in the workplace, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advises employees to steer clear of race-based or culturally offensive humor or pranks. Employers should likewise train their employees (especially managers and supervisors) to leave their stand-up routines at home. Discrimination is no laughing matter, and humor is notoriously subjective. Even well-meaning comments meant to be supportive of a particular racial group or demographic may be interpreted as stereotypical or discriminatory by someone else, so it is wise to eschew such potentially explosive discussions altogether.
Although training your employees on what type of workplace conduct is off-limits is a great first step in preventing discrimination claims, even the most conscientious employer cannot completely prevent employees from discussing controversial topics around the water cooler. So if you observe such chatter taking place, or if someone complains, be pro-active and address the situation head-on to prevent a recurrence. In addition, make sure every employee at your business understands the consequences for initiating, participating in, or condoning discriminatory behavior or harassment. Lastly, pass along this tip from the EEOC: “When in doubt, leave it outside the workplace.”