“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
This post may not be the usual finger-wagging scold you may have come to expect from an employment lawyer. I’m confident, though, that this blog’s audience of fellow practitioners and human resource professionals will take a little solace in it. After all, it’s no fun to be a killjoy and we are thrust into that role more often than we’d like.
Why? Because potential liability under the employment laws too often compels us to manage to the lowest common denominator.
That frustrating fact claims its share of fun as casualties because you never know when some yahoo is going to take the fun well beyond harmless. Witness the latest casualty, as reported by the Washington Post: Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement will prohibit (well, curtail) the time-honored practice of rookie hazing.
As reported by the Post (quoting the Associated Press), the new CBA “bans players from ‘requiring, coercing or encouraging’ other players to engage in ‘dressing up as women or wearing costumes that may be offensive to individuals based on their race, sex, nationality, age, sexual orientation, gender identify or other characteristic.’” Gone are the days, the Post mentions, when the Washington Nationals dressed their rookies as gymnasts and ballerinas, or when the Dodgers outfitted Yasiel Puig as Gumby. In other words, grizzled MLB veterans can’t poke some good-natured fun at rookies by putting them in a Marilyn Monroe wig because there’s probably some perverted vet out there who’s going to torment a rookie until he streaks the field wearing who-knows-what.
Now, I don’t blame you a bit if you read that last paragraph and decided that Major League Baseball and the players’ union have done us all a very big favor. On the other hand, friendly ribbing and joking can go a long way to develop chemistry and camaraderie among a team—whether it’s a baseball team or a business unit. The trick, of course, is knowing when it’s crossed the line, and that’s a terribly difficult line to draw (“good-natured” and “fun” being in the eye of the beholder and all). Unfortunately for us, the easiest way to navigate safely among Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the National Labor Relations Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and all of the other employment statutes is to put the kibosh on as much of it as you can.
I wish I had some more cheering news. No one enjoys telling a good employee that they can’t pull a harmless prank because a real-world Bluto Blutarsky may stalk among us, primed and ready to take that inch and go 100 miles more. Until we all grow up, though, we may just have to accept the unwanted mantle of the Puritan crusading against fun. And there’s one thing we know about adult humans: we don’t always act like adults.