When Talking About TV at Work Becomes an Issue

When Talking About TV at Work Becomes an Issue

The more television people 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.

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.

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