Where Do You Draw the Line with Workplace Humor?

I teach a lot of communication-skills and leadership workshops, and in one I came across the strangest generational issue I’ve seen in the workplace yet. A manager told the group how the week before there’d been an informal birthday party for one of his employees who was turning 50. The birthday boy’s colleagues brought a cake into the staff meeting and congratulated the fellow on his big day.

Some of the birthday wishes included asides like "You don't look a day over 49" and "Guess we'll be shopping for walkers for you, next." The manager thought nothing of it (except "I'm glad the team is so friendly with one another") and everyone went back to work. A few days later another employee was in the manager's office, unhappy. "I didn't like the nature of the joshing at Alan's birthday celebration," she said. "The jokes about his age really bothered me. I am 51, and I'd certainly hate to think that the company in any way looked down its nose at older workers."

"Not in the slightest!" protested the manager. "What you saw and heard was simply Alan's co-workers having fun with him, and in no way intending to offend you, him or anyone else."

"Well," I object," she said. "I don't think jokes of that nature should be tolerated at work."

Now the manager had a dilemma. Should he outlaw joking, or only age-related taunts, even in good fun? Should he likewise outlaw teasing related to other protected employment classes--for instance, ethnicity?

In that case, if one employee said to another in a group setting, "Jarek, my wife tasted one of those pierogis I brought home and said 'I wish we were Polish!'" would it be an outlawed joke?

Where do you draw the line on generational banter, without forbidding casual conversation altogether? What would you do?

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