It’s Not a Playground: Ending Teasing at Work

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  • Do ask, what is really going on
  • Do look at the impact
  • Do look for alternatives
  • Don't forget, all teasing isn't equal

Teasing seems so innocuous at work. Unless you’re the one being teased, especially if it is your boss doing the teasing. When it comes to teasing, take a cue from six-year-olds: they give it and get it better than anybody! My daughter Hallie, for example, recently complained to my wife that kids at school make fun of her because she wears only dresses. Maybe they’re jealous, my ex answered. Hallie looked at her with disdain. “That’s not the point,” she said irritably. “The point is, they hurt my feelings!”

Well, most grown-up teasing hurts people’s feelings too, even if it starts out all in good fun and isn’t meant to. So I recommend you check out Gordon MacKenzie’s book, “Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace” (Viking, 1998). It’s got a great chapter on teasing, as well as loads of other practical advice for surviving life in a bureaucracy. I’ve adapted the following from it.

Do ask, what’s really going on. Teasing is often a way of sending a deeper, more serious message. Think honestly about the person you’re about to tease. If you’ve got a problem with that person, deal with it directly, not in an underhanded way.

Do look at the impact. Realize that your words may have an unintended effect. I was stung recently when a friend teased me good-naturedly about getting “fat.” He didn’t know that I’d blown out my knee playing basketball and had been struggling to keep my weight down ever since. Unless you’re a mind reader, you don’t know what’s going on in another person’s head-so better to keep your exchanges safe.

Do look for alternatives. Mom used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” and Gordon reminded me that she was right: it’s much better to say something positive than to make fun at another’s expense. But don’t take our word for it, think about the last time your boss teased you. Did you like it? Gordon points out that people who tease often don’t like it when people tease THEM. Well, if we don’t like it, why should we do it to others?

Don’t forget, all teasing isn’t equal. Gordon says no! Bosses should NEVER tease subordinates because employees rarely have the freedom to tease back. In addition, when bosses tease, employees tend to become tentative and defensive. They never know where they stand and when the next strike will occur.

Now, I’m not saying we should be humorless at work. There’s one person we can always tease, and that’s ourselves. A little self-deprecating humor can liven up a boring meeting, lighten up a serious situation, and brighten up a tarnished image. I recommend it-and this is one thing I would never tease you about.

911 Pulse: How do you feel about teasing at work?

  • Cut it out, 20.1%
  • What’s a little joking? 24.2%
  • Depends on the circumstances, 56.6%

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