A Corporate Attorney's Greatest Enemy: Telling Bad Jokes

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on June 28, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the age of viral videos and social media, what happens in-house doesn't always stay in-house. That's especially true when it comes to telling bad or offensive jokes, which have recently gotten some notable corporate counsel in trouble.

This spring, a former in-house counsel sued his ex-boss at insurance giant AIG over allegedly racist jokes that compared him to the cartoon character Fat Albert. Weeks later, Safeway's general counsel made an allegedly offensive joke during a shareholder's meeting that soon went viral and cast a negative light on his company, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

So what makes in-house counsel especially vulnerable to the risks of telling bad jokes, and what should GCs do about it?

As in-house counsel know, an informal part of the job is to foster cordial working relationships with his corporate client's employees. This means letting one's guard down to make friends and "share jokes around the coffee machine," one professional-liability attorney wrote in an article for FindLaw's Legal Professional site.

"As Professor Geoffrey Hazard put it, the corporate lawyer never deals with 'the client as such' but only with 'client people,'" the article explains. "Thus the role and the loyalties of in-house counsel are clear in concept but potentially ambiguous in human terms."

Indeed, in-house counsel may need more sensitivity training when it comes to tasteless jokes, one labor lawyer wrote on her blog. Some sensitivity tips include:

  • Be aware of your coworkers' sensitivities and reactions. Know what types of jokes are off-limits at your office. If coworkers approach you to complain about your jokes, don't dismiss their concerns.
  • Remember, you're a role model. As in-house counsel, your coworkers look to you to enforce anti-harassment policies and foster a safe environment.
  • Consider the consequences. Telling a bad joke can lead to bad press, public apologies, and even litigation. It can also cost you your job.

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