Sexual Jokes, Innuendos and Banter: A Kind of Workplace Bullying?

Got an employee who’s funnier than Saturday Night Live?  Be careful; as funny as some folks find raunchy humor, it has an edge that can cut out some of the enjoyment at work – even for those who are engaging in it.

At least that’s the conclusion of recent research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.  The study’s authors investigated the impact of sexual behavior (sexual jokes, innuendo, discussions of sexual matters) in the workplace to see if employees got anything positive out of the behavior, such as enjoyment and social bonding.

Workplace Humor:  No Gender Difference when it comes to Sex

Twenty five percent of those exposed to it found it fun and flattering while half were neutral. But here’s the rub; even those who enjoyed the behavior tended to withdraw from work and feel less valued in comparison to employees who experienced little to no sexual behavior at the office.

And, contrary to popular opinion, there was no gender difference.  The industry didn’t matter either; the results were found among both women and men, working in manufacturing, social service and university jobs.

Sexual Workplace Behavior:  Funny and Intimidating

While it’s difficult to explain this paradox, the authors hypothesized that sexuality, particularly in the workplace, often has connotations of domination and vulnerability.  So, even employees enjoying the sexual tinge to their work environment may find their workplace a tad more threatening and unpredictable.

If this hypothesis is correct, sexual conduct in the workplace would be particularly uncomfortable if the comedian is a manager or person in a position of authority.  Prof. Berdahl, one of the study’s authors suggested the study’s findings should be treated as “sage advice” for employees and employers to avoid engaging in sexual behavior while on the job.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Training:  Teach Managers Appropriate Workplace Behavior, Not Just the Law

What thoughts immediately come to mind when you think of sexual harassment prevention training?  A necessary evil?  An affirmative defense against employment lawsuits?  A check-the-box “yes, we complied with our state’s mandated training law?”

Perhaps.  But seeing sexual harassment prevention training as only serving these purposes fails to take advantage of a golden opportunity to teach managers how to be more effective communicators, how to use humor effectively, and how to give solid feedback at the same time you’re meeting your compliance objectives.

Professional conduct training – addressing the spectrum of workplace behavior – takes advantage of one of the first psychological principles I learned in graduate school:  Before you take something away from someone, give him/her something better first.

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