“It was just a joke”

It often happens that an employee will try to excuse inappropriate behaviour by saying that it was just a joke. The management of human relations in a work environment is particularly complex and a ‘joke’ can have serious and far-reaching consequences for which the employee can be held accountable.
The workplace is an extremely diverse environment in terms of culture, religion, beliefs, values, political views, frames of reference, work ethics, opinions and the like. Not everyone will always get along with those around them and when conflict does arise, the employer must step in and assist in resolving the conflict before it escalates.

Bad behaviour disguised as a joke

Thanks to modern technology, equipment that can record incidents or conversations are highly accessible to those who wish to use it. Coupled with the fact that the workplace is a highly regulated environment in terms of legislation, employees ought to think twice about engaging in an inappropriate ‘joke’.

Typical examples of this behaviour include:

  • Discriminatory references to race, gender, religion, disability, age, sexist comments, sexual harassment, and so on.
  • Pranks and games. When it comes to tools, vehicles and machinery, no games or pranks can be afforded. Injuries can easily occur during pranks while working in close proximity to a tractor or hammer mill, for example.
  • Teasing.
  • Horseplay. This entails rough or rowdy games or pranks at the workplace and can include activities such as pranks involving physical contact, playing around, racing, grabbing, social pressure to engage in unsafe acts, harassment and unauthorised competitions.
  • Information shared on social media platforms such as WhatsApp.
  • Threats. When one employee threatens to harm another, including verbally and non-verbally (for example an intimidating look or hand gestures that make you feel unsafe).

A so-called ‘joke’ that goes awry will expose the employer to various risks, including injuries on duty, damage to property, damage to team dynamics when workplace relationships break down, damage to the employer’s public image, grievances, referrals to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), and court cases.

Disciplinary action

Every workplace must have a relevant disciplinary code ensuring that clear rules with appropriate sanctions are followed. The workplace disciplinary code provides for various types of offences relating
to inappropriate behaviour or a ‘joke’, including disorderly behaviour, abusive behaviour, damage or misuse of the employer’s property, breach of trust, and offences relating to alcohol or drugs.
Humour is a necessary outlet for alleviating underlying tensions in the workplace, and this type of behaviour therefore often begins with harmless intentions. However, the employer must consider the seriousness of the offence and apply discipline accordingly.
The type of work an employee does, along with his or her level of responsibility, the (possible) consequences of the offence, and its impact on the employee-employer trust relationship all
determine the seriousness of an offence. The offence will also be considered serious if an employee’s dignity has been affected.

Be proactive

Most workplace accidents can be prevented by being aware of hazards and following safety rules. Boundaries should be set from the beginning of the employment relationship to avoid any uncertainties going forward. Employers must make sure they follow the correct procedures when taking disciplinary action or holding consultations.



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