Debrett's Ask the Expert: How to tackle the rude remarks that are dressed up as banter

 
Debrett's: Ask the Expert
'Bruno: The Movie' Australian Press Conference
Offensive humour can elicit a reflexive laugh (Source: Getty)

Q: I get on well with my boss, but he’s often cracking jokes that make me uncomfortable. Occasionally these can border on sexist and even racist comments, but more often they’re just rude remarks dressed up as banter – making fun of someone’s appearance or accent, for example. I don’t want to seem po-faced, but I’m concerned that he risks causing serious offence. Also, his “jokes” really bother me. How can I take him to task?

The recent news that a comedian in Canada was fined thousands of dollars for a joke about a young disabled singer has been received with a mixture of outrage and unease. The joke itself has been roundly condemned, but many have questioned the decision of the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal to penalise an individual’s freedom of expression.

In the professional realm, this same freedom is necessarily moderated out of consideration for our colleagues and in promotion of an inclusive and diverse workforce. Jokes that may offend or alienate, however lightly intended, are never appropriate at work, and personal comments, even if complimentary, should be made with caution in case they’re interpreted as an unwanted advance.

This policy should be enforced even more stringently by someone in a management position: your boss’s close-to-the-bone humour could be echoed by his own staff, and bantering can swiftly turn into bullying. To compound the problem, his position of authority may mean that others are reluctant to confront or report him for fear of endangering their job.

Many of us dislike political correctness, which can be seen as humourless or censorious, and the degree of this aversion is often determined by age and background. If your boss is from a different generation or culture – or if his comments are gender-based – he may have different ideas about the type of humour that’s acceptable. At work, however, defending an offensive joke on any grounds is unlikely to gain much sympathy.

Conversely, your boss may feel that he is entitled to make fun of others precisely because of his own circumstances – if he’s frequently self-deprecating about his appearance or background, he might consider others fair game for mockery. Again, this doesn’t excuse his behaviour.

As difficult as it can be to stand up for yourself or your colleagues – especially to the boss – jokes that are in any way racist or sexist could have a seriously negative impact on a company’s reputation, causing clients to look elsewhere or, worse, giving grounds for misconduct. Your boss should be alerted to this before his sense of humour causes a real problem.

If you have a positive and open working relationship with him, you may feel able to initiate a conversation and suggest that he tone down his Frankie Boyle impression, outlining the possible implications if he doesn’t. If you feel unable to do this, take up the issue with your HR department or a senior colleague who will be able to act on your concern in confidence. While your boss may be reprimanded in the immediate term, making others aware of his behaviour could prevent more serious issues further down the line.

Provocative or offensive humour can elicit a reflexive laugh, even when its audience disapproves. Your boss will probably continue to make jokes as long as he thinks people find him funny, so an effective step in counteracting these may be simply to stop laughing: a silent protest can speak louder than a verbal one.

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