Forwarding Sexually Suggestive Humorous Emails and Workplace Harassment

I recently received at my work email address a link to a YouTube video of a very popular Irish television show, Mrs Brown’s Boys. In my opinion, this is the best comedy show that has come from the BBC in a very long time. The episode in question, “Mrs. Brown gets a bikini wax”, was so funny to me, I was crying from laughter at my desk. My first impulse was to share the video with some of my co-workers who have a similar sense of humour. However, I hesitated before I pressed the send button, and I decided to exclude males, which I had never done before.

I am not a politically correct person and I do have my biases and prejudices, but I was concerned.

Why?

Let me give you a brief summary of the episode: Mrs. Brown enlists the help of a neighbour after she decides she wants a bikini wax. Everything is going according to plan until Buster and Cathy turn up mid-wax…

Because of the subject matter, the workplace context and all the recent legislation, cases and discussions in Canada and the United States on harassment, for the first time I was conscious of possible repercussions from forwarding such email (specifically, participating in creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment).

We all know by now that emails sometimes get people in trouble—and some people get in trouble due to thoughtless emails. For instance, many people have lost their jobs after inappropriate use of email in the workplace. Forwarding emails within the workplace may carry drastic consequences for the sender, especially if unwelcome, lewd or sexually charged emails sent to co-workers and/or subordinates result in conduct that is prejudicial for the company.

I only received three responses from co-workers to whom I forwarded the video. All three enjoyed it, but one asked me if I should have sent it. I’d never really asked myself this question before. Now I wonder if I’ll reconsider every funny email that I want to share. And will I start to feel offended when I receive emails including videos and jokes that may be of questionable taste? Well, I think the latter outcome is unlikely, but I guess it is likely that I’ll receive such things less frequently, if this self-censorship takes hold.

I guess if it makes workplaces more respectful, it’s hardly a bad thing.

Workplace anti-harassment laws and policies usually have some wiggle room that allows or requires a person who feels harassed to discuss any incidents with the alleged harasser. In my case, for example, if someone was offended by the video, that person could discuss it with me and I could apologize and assured him or her that I wouldn’t repeat the behaviour. This is simple common sense regardless of law or workplace policy. So perhaps I don’t have to be too afraid of causing trouble at my workplace yet. Still, it’s hard to shake that feeling of someone censoring my thoughts and censuring my behaviour, even when that someone is me.

If you viewed the video clip, do you think I was right to be concerned and should have I restrained myself from forwarding the email to my co-workers? And have you experienced any similar situations?

Comments

  1. Great post Yosie.
    I confess that I err on the side of humourless and forward almost no joke emails at work. I like receiving the occassional joke, though I usually forward them on to a non-work email account so that I access them from home.

    Not only does my firm block some content for most users (like YouTube), I’ve had feedback, and given feedback about inappropriate email interruptions. Perhaps it is simply a sensative issue in my workplace, but this is generally frowned on.

  2. Thanks Shaunna for your insight on the topic. Much appreciated!

  3. There was a time when a lot of email messages with humour, jokes, fake warnings, and the occasional chain mail content were being sent around. I found them annoying at best, and am thankful they seem to have reduced in number. I don’t mind the odd note from a friend or family member sent to my personal email address pointing me to something funny, but rarely appreciate being on a group message receiving this content. I receive a lot of email messages in any given day (200+) that require reading, sorting and often responses, and like to control what I receive as much as possible.

    Besides, chances are pretty good that if it was very funny I would have already seen it via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube well before.

  4. Yosie Saint-Cyr

    Good point Connie

  5. Gary Luftspring

    Isn’t the answer that you should not do by email what you wouldn’t do verbally and that completely depends on the audience. Leave aside your office email policy which may ultimately be determinative the key is to know your audience. It indeed is sad if we have now become so politically correct that humour and the ability to pass on humour (granted you must know to whom you are sending things) has been so neutered that our workplaces has now become totally sterile for fear that someone to whom the “joke” was not passed on would have been offended if they had been the recipient.

  6. Like you, Yosie, I am not a politically correct person. Also, like you, I may be jaded by all the legislation, case law and training experiences I am aware of because of my profession. It’s too bad that we have to consider sanitizing our environment at work to such an extent. On the other hand we are not paid to view humorous clips on YouTube!!
    Even tho it goes against my personal grain to be so conservative, my professional experience tells me it is best to err on the side of caution.