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NSFW: a Humorous Look |

NSFW: Not Safe for Work

Years ago — we’re talking the days of MS-DOS and WordPerfect — someone showed me this amazing office trick. I was working on the editorial side for what was then a hot, new media company, and I found myself spending more time hanging with the programmers and IT folks, asking them a lot of annoying tech-related questions as it was all so new, certainly to me.

I was standing over Johan’s left shoulder, mesmerized by whatever new video game he was obsessing over that week . . . when suddenly and with terrifying speed, he hit a combination of keys (Alt+G, if memory serves), whereupon the screen immediately filled with a spreadsheet and pie chart.

“Whatcha got there, Johan?” asked Jim, Johan’s boss, peering over a sheaf of printouts as he sharked past the cubicle.

“Hey, just looking at some numbers,” Johan replied, satisfying Jim’s seemingly casual curiosity.

Johan had hit the “game key” in the nick of time. Most of the video games he played had a game key, each calling up a light variation of the same spreadsheet. (FYI, this scenario predated the 1999 movie “Office Space” by six years.)

It’s funny to think that back then a silly, nonexcessively violent computer game was considered “not safe for work,” when today you need a hazmat suit to wade through the wildly inappropriate, shocking stuff that cascades from all corners of the internet on an hourly basis. Then again, there was a time when showing up to the office sans necktie or sensible shoes was considered not safe for work, so the definition of what’s unacceptable continuously changes (what will make your employees blanch, your boss irate and your colleagues inconsolable in the not-too-distant future is sure to be an order of magnitude more horrific than what we’re seeing now).

The NSFW warning label accompanying an email, text, tweet or Snapchat usually means, “Be careful; if anyone sees this, you better have an explanation.” As total rewards professionals, though, you have a far broader definition of what is or isn’t safe for work. Your concerns extend beyond inappropriate digital communications to ensuring employees are safe from bodily harm, abuse and unfair/unequal treatment. This includes a patchwork of landmines and trapdoors, from sexual harassment to opioid misuse, to looming threats such as intergenerational conflicts and the inexorable rise of our robot overlords. (“Let me introduce you to our new compliance officer, Hal9000. FYI, he prefers Hal.”)

TR and HR professionals are supposed to be the organization’s “designated drivers.” Promoting a safe work environment is fundamental to what you do — in addition to all the other necessary-but-annoying things. While everyone is partying and having a grand old time, you’re patiently sipping cups of tepid coffee, waiting for the signal it’s time to go home. It’s worse than thankless; it’s no fun! But when you consider the terrain you need to negotiate — the unending issues that need to be addressed, the conflicts that need to get sorted — you realize that keeping the workplace safe can be treacherous. You’re not so much the designated driver as the offensive tackle protecting a star quarterback: unsung but instrumental, typically only noticed when things go wrong.

And maintaining a safe workplace doesn’t always mean playing it safe. Indeed, it often demands the opposite: unsafe thinking and experimentation that challenges the status quo and even your own foundational beliefs. In this column we’ll take on the day’s most pressing issues with a disciplined disregard for received wisdom and undeterred stabs at humor that may not always be safe for work or how you think about work — perhaps not even safe for Workspan! But to paraphrase a former president, we do these things not because they’re easy or safe, we do them because they’re hard, if occasionally ill-advised.

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