Offensive Language and Physical Violence in the Workplace: Was Will Smith Justified in Hitting Chris Rock in the Face?

Television audiences for award shows have been in steep decline for years, but the 2022 Academy Awards received far more media attention after the fact than any other in modern history. This attention was all thanks to an off-color joke by Chris Rock, which was immediately followed by Will Smith marching onto the stage and slapping Rock in the face.

will smith slap

Five months later, the incident continues to receive media attention. As a comedian, Rock has started making jokes about Smith’s assault by stating, “Anyone who says words hurt has never been punched in the face.” While the vast majority of rational people would agree that Rock did not deserve to be hit in the face, there are some other lessons HR professionals can take away from the incident. What if Rock and Smith had been your employees?

  • While Rock did not deserve to be hit in the face, words do hurt. While they may not cause physical injury, they can cause significant pain. Employers should have standards of conduct to prevent harmful language and offensive jokes. At the same time, it is also important to understand that it is impossible and potentially counterproductive to apply such policies so aggressively that you are effectively attempting to eradicate humanity from the workplace. HR managers should recognize that people are not robots.  
  • While Rock’s joke was off-color and offensive, physical violence is never acceptable. Words can cause real pain, but an act of violence in the workplace is not something employers can tolerate under any circumstances.
  • In the workplace and life in general, it is rare for a onetime comment or joke to immediately lead to physical violence. For employers, it is important for HR to ensure managers and employees are trained to report offensive comments when they are first heard. While it is impossible to eradicate humanity from the workplace, the ability to intervene and stop offensive behavior is essential to both preventing legal liability and ensuring that you maintain a healthy and productive work environment. 

Smith’s decision to hit Rock in the face was indefensible. Indeed, if such an incident were to occur in the workplace, many employers would immediately call the police. The act of assaulting another person is a criminal act that cannot be tolerated. In this hypothetical scenario, most HR managers would likely agree that the act of physical violence would warrant termination, even if the employee were the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

What would you do with the employee in Rock’s position who made the inappropriate joke in the workplace? I would say the answer to this question is less clear. Words alone can cause harm, and some onetime statements can and should warrant termination. But, it is neither practical nor plausible to fire every employee who makes a statement or joke that another employee finds offensive. It is a best practice to consider how to address such policy violations based on the circumstances as a whole, including the employee’s history of past offensive behavior.

Frank Day is a Partner at FordHarrison.

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