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We have an employee who seems to be easily offended by non-offensive things. The latest example is that we should not talk about how facial hair makes someone look different because this person is sensitive to comments about beards. A colleague with a long beard, let's call him Jeff, shaved it off the other day. I joked "Where did Jeff go?" which offended this person because beards can be seen as a gender specific identifier. HR later told me not to make any beard comments.

There are many other comments like these about gender identity. They claim we shouldn't be talking about a lot of things, that don't strike me as problematic topics.

How should these sensitive gender issues be handled? Should we all walk on egg shells around this person or should we be allowed to say someone looks different when they shaved their beard?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Sep 8 '16 at 22:03
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    Just a quick reminder that we are hearing only one side of the story. If there were other things going on not documented here, the correct a seers might be quite different. If you want good advice, resist the temptation to slant the description to defend/justify yourself. – keshlam Sep 11 '16 at 5:39
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    What do you mean by "offended"? How offended did they get? I ask because maybe they weren't that offended but still felt it comment-worthy, but you (and HR) may be taking a bit too much offense from their reaction... – colmde Sep 12 '16 at 13:37
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    OP, the question (as edited by Joe Strazzere) states that your joke was "Where did Jeff go?", but your comments indicate that you said "Where did you go?" I read Strazzere's version as a joke that you "can't see" Jeff because he no longer looks like your memory of Jeff, whereas your version sounds more like you're asking Jeff where he just got back from, which I suppose could be taken to imply that Jeff just got back from gender-reassignment surgery (this is obviously a stretch, at least in my opinion). – Kyle Strand Sep 12 '16 at 19:48
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    You might want to edit once more for clarity, and it's probably also worth explicitly mentioning in the edit that Jeff himself was not offended (assuming Jeff himself told you he was not offended). – Kyle Strand Sep 12 '16 at 19:48

12 Answers 12

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Alert HR as soon as possible. This person is going to be disruptive as long as this person is allowed to be. In fact, give this person a taste of their own medicine and tell HR that a hostile work environment is being created by a person being offended on behalf of other staff who have expressed no such discomfort.

I would be considered a member of several "protected classes" that people just love to get in a tizzy about. What I find offensive is people getting offended on my behalf without considering for one minute what my opinion on the matter might be. That is treating me, and anyone else out of the mainstream as if we were infants needing constant protection. Worse, this person got the OP in trouble over a comment that wasn't even over a "protected class". This is a morale destroyer and, as I said above the very definition of a hostile environment. Toxic, in fact

Someone who is offended on the behalf of others is simply virtue signaling and causing a disruption. Do NOT walk on eggshells for that person or anyone else trying this garbage.

As per user23715's comments below, the exception is if your HR department rewards whining, in which case it may be better to just update your resume and move on.

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    How is alerting HR supposed to help when it was HR who told the OP not to make beard comments? I'd say they're alert plenty. – Dmitry Grigoryev Sep 9 '16 at 12:53
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    @DmitryGrigoryev because there is a high chance they have only heard one side of the story, and just want to be on the safe side. If someone comes to me and says: X is harassing me! I'd go and say: "X if you are harrassing Y please stop" - But if X can explain that Y is a toxic nutjob making every one crazy, I might have a word with Y – Falco Sep 9 '16 at 15:33
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    HR is really not there to settle scores between employees. HR is there to avoid lawsuits. You're not going to be able to sue these people for being too PC or whatever, so they're really not going to care that you think the guy is just being a whiner. – NotVonKaiser Sep 10 '16 at 22:32
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    That is SO TRUE @NotVonKaiser - so true that it warrants an underlining comment. People are almost always mistaken about the role of HR in a company until they learn the hard way. HR is not there to protect or help the employees. Sometimes they help with recruitment to fill the time, but their most fundamental job is to protect the company. – GreenAsJade Sep 10 '16 at 23:33
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    @GreenAsJade - part of protecting the company is making sure that your employees and all their corporate knowledge don't walk out of the door rather than deal with a "protected" employee. If enough people went to HR about this disruptive person, something would be done about. – HorusKol Sep 11 '16 at 23:12
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It's not clear whose beard you were discussing (your own, the complainer, or a third person) but I'll assume for now it was a third person. It's clear you can't see why anyone would be upset or offended at any discussion of someone's personal appearance in a work context. The other answers at the moment support this view, that of course it's terrific to sit around at work chatting about what people look like, and perhaps even extrapolating from that to matters you feel are related to appearance.

Some comments a person might make after a colleague shaved a beard could easily be very distressing. Consider:

  • definitely looks a little girlier now
  • it makes him look younger, I think you have a more experienced look with a beard
  • my father never trusted bearded men; I think it's good he shaved it
  • he doesn't have a strong jaw. Men with weak jaws should cover them
  • I've always felt beards are just the thing for lazy guys who don't want to have to shave every morning
  • He looks way better. Before he looked kind of shaggy and hippie-ish

All of these connect an appearance choice to something else, like femininity, age, trustworthiness, strength, laziness, being a hippie, and so on. Anyone hearing them could easily "connect the dots" to think that you feel the same way about them with their own beard or lack thereof, or that you feel a certain way about women, younger people, feminine men, masculine women, and so on. Strongly articulated opinions (presented as fact in many cases) can hurt feelings. Note also that this isn't being offended on behalf of someone else. As a woman surrounded by men, any time one man says to another "man up and deal with this" or "you need to grow a pair" I hear that the speaker thinks I (and people like me, who aren't men and can't man up or use our pair) don't really belong on the team. If I object, it's not on behalf of anyone other than myself. That many of the men who say this will claim not to believe such things just makes it even sadder that they feel free to talk that way anyway.

You don't seem to be aware of this at all. You seem to feel that in order to make software or sell insurance or plan construction projects, it's your right to talk about how everyone around you looks, even when one of the people around you has told you they find that upsetting and hurtful. Without hearing what you said, lots of people are willing to pat you on the back and say that absolutely, you have that right, don't let anyone take it from you. I'd like you to consider the possibility that you are genuinely upsetting someone who just wants to make software or sell insurance or plan construction projects and didn't come to work to hear your opinions on beards, shoes, weight loss, hair length, sleeve lengths, or belt buckles.

Even if you're sure you're saying something very neutral, you might not be. And you already know at least one person doesn't like these topics. How hard is it to avoid those topics in group conversations? Sure, when X shows up clean shaven for the first time, you can notice

Wow, new look! How are you liking it ?

That's one-on-one with the shaver and doesn't contain any of your opinions about what beards mean. It's not at all the same as extended riffing in the presence of, or with and engaging, other people, on the meaning and consequences of someone's appearance change, especially a gender-associated appearance change. As an adult in a workplace, you should be able to see the difference.

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    It's only a matter of time until the comments are cleared away again and I won't be engaging, but one point of clarification. At the time I wrote this answer the comment was not in the question. Just "I said something about a person's beard." And every answer and comment was "you should be able to say anything you want as much as you want and nobody should ever object especially if it wasn't about them." That belief is wrong. Many things people say about appearance offend, and can offend third parties. This answer seeks to show that to those who don't know. – Kate Gregory Sep 9 '16 at 13:56
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    I'd like you to consider the possibility that you are genuinely upsetting someone who just wants to make software or sell insurance or plan construction projects and didn't come to work to hear your opinions on beards, shoes, weight loss, hair length, sleeve lengths, or belt buckles. - I think you should start the answer with this sentence or bold it or something to set it out. Its easy to miss but I think its the most important part of this answer. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 16 '16 at 21:03
  • @KateGregory I agree with this for the most part, but if a person literally spells out "I don't believe that you're not a crucial part of this team," then good faith suggests that you believe them, not argue with them and tell them what they really believe. Also, language policing ("don't use man in a sentence like that") can be just as toxic as telling people that their beard makes them come off as lazy. That's not to say that one should be able to say what they want (as stated in your comment.) Just that Be nice also includes not making everyone feel like they're being policed forever. – The Anathema Sep 19 '16 at 21:45
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Start with the assumption that their offense is sincere and appropriate.

By calling your own comments "non-offensive", you're assuming that their offense is either insincere or inappropriate.

It's clear that their offense does not make sense to you. If something doesn't make sense to you, wouldn't it be logical to seek to understand it first, before dismissing it as ill-founded?

It's clear that there are topics that do not seem problematic to you that do seem problematic to your colleague. A good step forward is to talk to them with a view to seeking to understand why they feel that way.

I strongly recommend inviting them for tea/coffee/water/beer (as appropriate) with a view to just listen (to begin with). Explain that your sincere desire is not to upset them and that you've been unsuccessful in this. Ask if they'd be willing to help you understand the broader issues that are causing them concern and (and this is important) only listen. By all means, ask questions to further your understanding, but do not seek to "explain" or "justify".

Perhaps, after listening, you'll see their point of view and agree.

Perhaps, after listening, you'll still feel that they're having a chilling effect on the team.

However, at least you'll understand and any conversation about making your workplace a comfortable place for all of the people will come from a place of mutual understanding and compassion.

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    Having a conversation with the toxic coworker is doubly important, because going straight to HR to report them signals to them that going to HR to resolve petty insecurities is acceptable. If they want to be professional, they should learn how to interact with coworkers and resolve conflict (perceived or otherwise) in an adult way. – Knetic Sep 10 '16 at 7:39
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    I like this approach, but this could lead to a world of trouble if the offended individual misinterprets the intent. You're now signaling to them that you know they complained to HR about you (even if it's super obvious), and they might fear retribution or a hostile situation. Alternatively, they could use the conversation, however innocent it might be, and tell HR it was something more than it was. Find a way to have a witness without it even remotely looking like you're ganging up on the person. Honestly, maybe have the discussion in the HR office. – BobbyScon Sep 12 '16 at 22:20
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I have worked with this persons whole family. I don't actually say anything offensive at work unless I'm swearing at a particularly stubborn piece of hardware. But some people will be offended at anything and twist a normal conversation into something totally different.

Solution:-

Shrug at them, don't waste your time trying to explain, you might spend your whole day doing that and they're not interested in your explanation, they're only interested in finding a way to be offended. So you just give them more ammo.

Unless HR or your manager is giving you a hard time about it... just shrug... it disarms them.

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    Or maybe give a single sentence like a standard "Wasn't meant to be offensive." and then shrug and walk away. – Nobody Sep 8 '16 at 17:26
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    Unfortunately, he was dinged by HR for his beard comment (added in his edit) – Retired Codger Sep 8 '16 at 17:27
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    @Kilisi I'd just update my resume, no way on earth I'd want to work in that kind of environment. – Retired Codger Sep 8 '16 at 20:32
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    @RichardU I'd tell HR to get a grip on reality...... (my resume is always updated) I would not be impressed at being pulled up for harmless comments. – Kilisi Sep 8 '16 at 20:46
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    I think this gets it spot on. People that like getting attention and being protected over nothing usually see indifference as something much worse than divergent opinions. If you were to discuss whether or not it is offensive, they would think they started a "useful debate". However, if you simply walk away, it is made clear that you do not care about their whining. – Bernardo Sulzbach Sep 12 '16 at 21:21
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If you can find a way to work this out with this person and make this problem go away, that's great. Please make every effort to do that. But I'm going to assume that you can't and that this person keeps making trivial complaints to HR and that this is a serious issue that affects your ability to work. If not, find a polite solution.

You need to make HR do their job. There's a complaint against you. HR is supposed to investigate it and make findings. Instead, it sounds like they're trying to placate the complainant and make the problem go away. They might think they're doing everyone a favor, but they are not doing their job.

Send them a written request for the findings they made with regard to the complaint. Specifically, did they find the complaint substantiated? Did they find that the complaint was made in good faith? Did they find that the complaint was not made in good faith and was an attempt to bully or harass you? (Don't suggest that it was. Just ask them if that's what they found. It's their job to investigate, so they should have either found that or not found that.)

If HR finds that the complaints are not made in good faith, they should deal with the person making the bogus reports. The tough case is if they find that the complaints were made in good faith despite your opinion that they are obviously bogus complaints and where they are really affecting your ability to have a peaceful work environment.

If that happens, notify your manager that you are looking for a new job because you cannot tolerate the bullying and hostile environment that you are getting in the form of these harassing complaints and failure of HR to make appropriate findings and make the harassment stop. Your company will probably get lawyers involved at this point, so keep complete documentation including names of people who can substantiate your claims.

Again, please try to avoid escalating this situation if at all possible. It will be better for everyone, especially you. But if you do need to escalate, that's how.

While it is generally illegal to retaliate against someone for filing a discrimination or bias complaint, in most jurisdictions it is legal to retaliate after a fairly-made finding that the complaint was not made in good faith or was made to harass or annoy. It is not sufficient that the complaint be found to be incorrect or not substantiated. There must be a positive finding that the complaint was not made in good faith, that is, that the person was not really offended or that any such offense was trivial and that the real purpose for the complaint was as a form of bullying or harassment.

Whatever you do, do not pretend to take offense at trivial things. Do not mistreat a fellow professional. Do not retaliate in any way, other than with HR. If you genuinely feel that these bogus complaints and poor HR handling are making your work environment hostile, say so. If not, you ultimately have to live with it or find a new job.

tl;dr: If this doesn't really bother you and you've just worked yourself up into a self-righteous frenzy, just let it go. It doesn't matter if you're right or wrong. You have a co-worker with an annoying quirk you can live with. I'm sure you have annoying quirks too, like making beard jokes. But if this really does rise to the level of you being bullied or suffering a hostile work environment where you live in fear of the next bogus complaint, use the procedures your company has to deal with that. And do not let HR bully you either or placate a bully, call them on it.

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    HR is supposed to investigate it and make findings. Instead, it sounds like they're trying to placate the complainant and make the problem go away. I wish this answer was up voted more because this is the real issue. Everyone's hung up on whether this is OK to be offended at and that's not the problem. – BSMP Sep 13 '16 at 15:50
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I think other answers are very good, but I think what goes around comes around.

Perhaps this person needs to receive a cup of his own medicine? Maybe you and/or your team members should feel offended at the fact that this person keeps feeling offended for trivial things and on someone else's behalf, and take the issue to HR? Who is he/she to feel offended when "Jeff", who is the target of the joke, didn't? That's just pretentious, to put it politely.

On a more serious note, it's likely that HR is coming down on you hard because this easily-offended person is the only person making any noise (i.e. talking/complaining/reporting/etc).

If you stay quiet and do nothing, you will pay the consequences later on because they may interpret that as you having "admitted" to being "offensive" by omission (e.g. not defending yourself). In fact, you don't even know what this person actually claimed behind your backs. This person is very unlikely to be trustworthy. (I've had to deal with difficult co-workers before, the "everyone's out to get them"-types, although it never got to HR in our team's case. Our team had tried to play "nicely", but they've been suffering the consequences of it for a long time now.)

Instead, if you and/or the rest of your team report the situation to management and HR, then they may realize where the real problem actually is and, who knows, maybe even do something about it.

To top it off, if/when HR comes down on this person, they might get everything they need out of this person's instant on-the-spot reaction.

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    +1 for mentioning that whiners get the most attention. The problem with trouble-makers like this one is that REAL concerns get buried in the noise. – Retired Codger Sep 8 '16 at 19:03
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    If this happened to me, I would probably find an innocent and common word in the last sentence the offended person just uttered, and I would act offended, and say that "if you reserve the right to be offended by the usage of the word 'beard', I'll reserve the right to be offended if you utter the word xxx. I order you to stop using the word xxx because it offends me". – Val Sep 8 '16 at 21:13
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    @Val, but the problem there is that it would simply give more "ammunition" to this easily-offended person. Instead of playing a losing game (e.g. "They're harassing me!" 😢) just don't. Talk to those that are supposed to have the power to do something meaningful about it. – code_dredd Sep 8 '16 at 22:14
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    @Val That would be bullying. If you believe their conduct is wrong, you have to believe your own conduct is wrong too. So don't do it. – David Schwartz Sep 9 '16 at 6:33
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Your HR department should have some sort of EEO/Anti-Discrimination policies or processes in place, I would refer to those, last thing you need is for a comment to be misconstrued that is covered in something like that coming to bite you. It is definitely something to query Legal/HR (if you have them) about in any case.

A tactful approach is best, either let that person know that no one is saying anything to be intentionally inflammatory or offensive, and have HR/Legal there during this conversation. If that person continues, it is messing with morale and order and you will have to discipline them.

Sorry you are going through that nonetheless - it is always hard to deal with PC culture (or misplaced perceptions), handle this one with kids gloves no matter what.

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    Our EEO seems to benefit the offended. What sort of statement would protect the so called "offender"? Ours talks about "bullying will NOT be accepted" etc. – Jeffery Douglas Sep 8 '16 at 13:57
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    @JefferyDouglas Seems to me that this person is actually the one bullying. – cwallenpoole Sep 8 '16 at 17:09
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    Deciding who did what to whom tends to become a nuclear war: all retaliation and no winners. Sometimes companies have to tell everyone to stop talking about non-work topics and get on with it. For those who see work as social, it is a problem. For people (like me) who tend to see it as biz, it is not. So you can choose how you see it. – user37746 Sep 8 '16 at 18:53
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    As @cwallenpoole said, next time something like this happens you should complain to HR that you feel bullied by this employee as he takes every friendly remarks you say as being offensive, and this make you feel bad and prevents you from working and interacting correctly with the others as you are always afraid someone may interpret what you say in a bad way. Hell, you even went as far as to create a post on this board, so it clearly made you feel uneasy at least. – Shautieh Sep 9 '16 at 10:11
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HR later told me not to make any beard comments.

This is a bizarre company to work for. I would just leave because tomorrow someone will be offended by cars (a macho topic) or the color fuschia (a feminist topic) or unicorns, and this will be OK for HR.

If this happened in France HR would also forbid to discuss this topic as they would fear that people would die of laughter - which is annoying for resources allocation.

2

Take a piece of paper and draw three coloumns with headers:

What is the problem(s)   |   What is the cause(s)   |  What is the solution(s)
                         |                          |
                         |                          |
                         |                          |
                         |                          |
                         |                          |
                         |                          |

and prefill the first one with Jeffry said "Where did Jeff go?" (starting with pure facts without any judgements is always a good start and often a requirement to get constructive conversations). Then ask to talk with the offended person and start with something like

Hi. I learned that you were offended by what I said which was not intentional. Could you help me understand why?

and ask the person to fill in the two other columns with information (and possibly change/add to the problem coloumn). Do not be afraid to ask why questions to get to the root cause.

Some of the possible outcomes of this are:

  • You learn and understand why this person was offended.
  • The other person will realise that he/she felt offended because of something else, it was just that your action triggered this.
  • The other person have a hard time explaining why he/she felt that way.
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    You cannot reason with the unreasonable. – Retired Codger Sep 12 '16 at 18:28
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Well, it can be infuriating to be made fun of regardless of what you do. If you have a beard as a man you can be told to shave by a lot of people. If you shave your are made fun of.

Make sure the other person isn't really offended and made fun of regularly without their consent. All other answers seem to ignore the possibility that this person is really having a hard time.

From the intel provided noone can really tell.

You have to consider that some people are bullied in school and don't want to handle shit like that at work. Not even anything going remotely in that direction. In school you can't really do anything because it increases the issue and many school don't give a fuck. At work the work is stressful enough and you can sue and escalate stuff with HR.

Make sure you and other people are not beeing an asshole to that person on a constant basis. It's always just fun, even in school when people are bullied. Thing is noone lets that person in on the fact that it's just fun and often when said it's ironic or the other person can't laugh.

And yes, gender indentity is a problem. If a female coleague of yours had implants or breast cancer removal would you ask "Where is sheril?".

Just cause men are supposed to take more shit doesn't mean all of them like it.

If they don't enjoy fun then simply dont make any with them.

Consider the fact they might be insecure about their looks or have been mocked in the past. Also consider the possiblity of that person having PTSD/nightmares of beeing bullied again like in school.

If you consider any of those possiblities then that person escalating the issue to HR makes sense.

Consider that HR might have intel that you don't have, and their proposal has reasons that you weren't told explicitly because of the privacy of the offended.

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    From what I understand in the OP, the person taking "offense" is not the person that they're joking about, and AFAIK, there's no indication that the "Jeff", the target of the joke, ever felt really offended at all. In addition, a person "escalating" to HR due to a trivial comment does not "make sense", at least not to a reasonable person, IMO. – code_dredd Sep 8 '16 at 20:52
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    @ray And while it's illegal to retaliate against someone for making a discrimination/bias complaint they believed was legitimate (even if it's later found not to be), it is perfectly legal (in most jurisdictions) to retaliate against someone for making such a complaint after a fairly-made finding that the complaint was not made in good faith but was instead made to harass or annoy. – David Schwartz Sep 9 '16 at 6:35
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    There is a huge difference between making just about any sort of comment about someone's beard and making one about someone's breasts (even if unrelated to cancer). – iamnotmaynard Sep 9 '16 at 14:55
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One thing that others answer do not cover is that there are items that are in general (in most jurisdictions) considered offensive as racism and sexism, and anyone offended by racist or sexist remarks have a just cause (again in most jurisdictions) to have those remarks removed from their working environment.

Pogonophobia (fear of facial hair) is not one of them. Neither is "fear of (witty) remarks about facial hair" if there is such a thing.

If HR is going to implement a company policy to protect someone suffering from a uncommon phobia they need a diagnosis, especially as it is a severe restriction of the other employees' expression of themselves in the workplace, for which they can be liable, IANAL but I think they can even be liable with a diagnosis, if what they disallow is too much part of being a human or an employee (imagine a policy about not being able to rest your elbows on the desk, or not being able to write across the lines of the paper). (At one extreme arachnophobia does not need a diagnosis, as keeping tarantulas in the workplace is not considered as part of being able to express oneself in the workplace, saying "ew" should suffice to have it removed).

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It's worth saying that in a good team a certain level of mutual mockery can be a good thing as it provides a way to diffuse tensions and get potential issues out in the open.

For this to work you need good leadership which is sensitive to the difference between blowing off steam and bullying and it won't work if your team members dot have some basis for mutual respect.

Part of this is that it is often easier for people to joke about a subject that to make a serious philosophical discourse about it, also making joke gives the person in question the opportunity to joke back.

As a manager you may want to keep an eye on these situations and make sure that the overall balance is fairly neutral ie if on person is the but of all of the jokes then make it your business to support them in front of their colleagues.

Equally any sort of real bullying is bad for a team as it will end to favour more aggressive People over those who are actually god at their jobs.

Ultimately there is no easy solution to this and it comes down to your ability to read people and their intentions but it the best advice is to go with you best instincts.

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    I have never been on a team where mockery of any type was acceptable. It does not diffuse tensions, it creates them. – HLGEM Oct 31 '16 at 21:03

protected by Jane S Sep 8 '16 at 22:02

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