by Meridith Levinson

When Talking About “The Office” at the Office Becomes a Problem

Oct 12, 2009
CareersIT LeadershipLegal

The more television Americans watch, the more they talk about those programs at work the next day. The problem is that much of what they view on TV isn't appropriate to discuss in the workplace, says employment law expert Shanti Atkins in this Q&A.

If you’re a fan of Saturday Night Live, you’ve probably seen the sketch, “Dick in a Box,” featuring comedian Andy Samberg and singer Justin Timberlake. It’s a spoof on a music video for an R&B love song about a man who is so serious about his girlfriend that he wants to give her a very special gift: his privates in a box. (The video is not explicit.)

“Dick in a Box” is one of several racy mock music videos by Samberg and Timberlake that have taken the Web by storm. Other titles include “Mother Lover” (about Oedipal relationships) and “Jizz in My Pants,” which shouldn’t require any explanation. Are they funny? If you like that sort of thing. Are they appropriate for work? Absolutely not.

Yet the outrageous nature of the videos did not stop some employees at a high-tech company from making them the topic of conversation or from showing them to each other on their iPhones at work. They didn’t see anything wrong with it, especially since they were using their personal iPhones to watch the videos, as opposed to their work computers. However, when managers caught wind of the content, they hired an HR training firm, ELT, to explain that the content was inappropriate for work, and that it didn’t matter employees used their personal iPhones to share the videos.

Incidents like the one at the high-tech company where employees are watching and rehashing tawdry television content on the job are widespread, says Shanti Atkins, ELT’s president and CEO. “I hear about this over and over,” she says.

The Office's Michael Scott
Michael Scott gets away with everything at work, but you can’t.

It’s problematic for employers because, in addition to hampering productivity, employees’ talking about and sharing edgy television content creates serious management, HR and legal problems, says Atkins, a former employment attorney. Employers need to address television content in the workplace because it is influencing employees’ behavior, she adds, and it’s only going to grow more common.

Several converging trends have made television a management problem for employers. For one, says Atkins, both network and cable television programs have become increasingly graphic and sexually charged. At the same time, because Americans watch so much TV (153 hours per month, according to The Nielsen Company), the programs they watch become the topic of conversation at work the next day, even though they may not be appropriate.

What’s more, Atkins adds, television content is easier to access than ever thanks to smartphones and on-demand content services such as TiVo, Hulu and YouTube. Because the content is portable, people can easily bring it to work. Finally, there’s a generation of employees in the workforce who seem to know everything about media and technology, but who know nothing about the legacy of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

Atkins spoke with about television’s influence on workplace behavior and what she thinks employers need to do about it. When you talk about television influencing workplace behavior, are you referring to people copying the behavior they see on TV in the office?

Shanti Atkins: That’s the more dramatic issue: someone emulating what they see on TV. The main problem is that because people are so media obsessed, they talk about what they see on television in the office and they bring it into the workplace through social media and social networking technologies like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. In that way, it does influence their behavior.

Employees know they can’t grope a co-worker or tell a racist joke. They don’t engage in the obvious stuff, but the blurring of people’s work and social lives and the influence of pop culture has created problems.

Hasn’t TV’s influence on people’s behavior at work always been a problem? I remember Candice Bergen treating her co-workers really poorly when she played Murphy Brown in the 1980s, and in the 1990s the show Ally McBeal was known for its cheeky treatment of sex and relationships in the workplace.

This is a phenomenon that’s specific to the past couple of years. Shows that seemed racy 10 years ago are tame compared to what you’re seeing right now. The other theme that’s important to consider is the advent of on-demand content: Not only can employees talk about these shows after the fact, they can also bring them into the workplace really easily on their computers or iPhones. You can show someone a high-quality YouTube clip in a matter of seconds. This is a development that’s just a few years old.

Can you give an example of a TV show that people talk about at work that’s inappropriate?

On a recent episode of The Office, which is on NBC, in the opening scene, Michael, who is the boss, calls Oscar, the openly gay employee on the show, into his office. Michael tells Oscar that he’s going to have a colonoscopy and he asks for Oscar’s advice on how to make the procedure a more pleasurable experience for him and his doctor. That’s very sexually charged content shown taking place in an office, and it’s on NBC. It’s meant to be funny, and you can imagine people watching that on TV and talking about it at work the next day.

Should people be talking about that in the workplace? I would advise managers against it. If a group of employees are openly talking about a colonoscopy procedure being akin to male-on-male sex, that could be very offensive to a gay person. It uses very edgy humor related to sexual orientation and a sex act—something that could be very sacred between people—and it trivializes it and turns it into a joke. What if a client were to come in when people were talking about the episode? It definitely crosses the boundary on appropriate content.

When people talk at work about the outlandish things they see on TV, they think they’re safe. They think, ‘It wasn’t my joke. I’m just repeating what I heard.’ But in talking about it and commenting on it and joking about it, it becomes as bad as the behavior they saw on TV.

Some people will argue, How offensive or inappropriate can the content be if it’s on network TV?

That’s the prime-time myth: If it was on CBS at eight o’clock, how offensive can it be? Over the last few years, though, the content on TV has pushed the boundaries. It’s much more sexually charged, and the violence is much more graphic. All of these salacious TV shows are battling for ratings in an industry that’s trying to be profitable. The stuff you see on TV now is in a different league from what you saw 10 years ago.

Realistically, can employers control what employees talk about?

Many employees think the first amendment protects them at work, and that their boss can’t tell them what they can and can’t say. In fact, she can, because an employer has a legal obligation to maintain a safe work environment.

Some of the conversations about healthcare that took place over the summer on TV and in town halls got really out of control. When someone watches that debate on TV at eight or nine o’clock in the evening and comes into work the next day, they feel empowered to talk about it. Political topics can get really explosive in the workplace. If a conversation about a TV show or a political debate gets out of control, the employer is obligated to step in and control the conversation.

Don’t people know that some topics, especially politics, are off-limits at work?

It’s still going to happen, especially when people are living and breathing media 24 by 7.

How can managers identify the line that separates water cooler conversations that are safe from those that are inappropriate?

Managers struggle with this because they want to be friends with their employees. They want to be liked. What a lot of green people do is read the room: Does anyone look offended? The problem with that approach is that it’s not the legal test of whether inappropriate behavior has taken place. The legal test of whether inappropriate behavior has taken place is if a reasonable person would be offended by the conversation. Managers need to ask themselves if the conversation would be offensive to a reasonable person.

Some people will say that employers are being overly politically correct by monitoring such conversations.

Controlling conversations that cross a certain line doesn’t mean that employees can never talk about TV at work. In fact, that would be a very dangerous rule for employers to impose. They can’t set unreasonable, draconian standards. But they can tell employees that it’s their duty to protect employees, and that when conversations get offensive or make people feel unsafe or harassed, they have to stop those conversations. Skilled managers know how to do this in ways that don’t feel oppressive. They’ll say, ‘I think we need to end this conversation,’ or ‘This is getting inappropriate; let’s move on.’

Is it more common to find workers in their 20s talking about and sharing what they see on TV at work as opposed to older workers?

I think it is more prevalent, but the mistake a lot of managers and HR people make is that they assume it’s only a concern with 20-somethings.