A Co-Worker Told a Sexist Joke. Should You Be Disciplined for Laughing?

In a company staff meeting, a regional manager made a joking remark that was unquestionably inappropriate for that setting. It was sexist in nature but quite witty and clever. While many of us in the meeting groaned in disbelief, three employees laughed out loud. The manager has been suspended by human resources. Should the people who laughed at the comment, two men and one woman, also be disciplined? Is a reflex reaction to a comment less egregious than “liking” an objectionable social media post? Name Withheld, Bedford, N.Y.

Pressing “like” on a social media post is something people do on their own time. I’m inclined to think that employers have been too eager to make after-hours activity their business; as scholars like Elizabeth Anderson and Jeannette Cox show us, such monitoring comes at a serious cost to the freedom of expression we think we enjoy. By contrast, management has a legitimate interest in the way people behave at company meetings, because it directly affects the workplace atmosphere. Employees shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable because of things like gender, sexual orientation, race or religion — and, of course, there are legal as well as ethical aspects to the stricture. It’s wrong, however, to penalize someone for laughing at a joke, not the least because laughter is sometimes a response to shocked embarrassment. The job of human resources, in any case, is to assess our conduct, not to plumb our souls. Making that inappropriate remark was clearly a choice, as laughing at it might not have been. The penalty paid by the speaker in question sufficiently communicates that the company intends to avoid creating a hostile work environment.

I am a psychiatrist. One of my patients moved to another state five years ago, but I still provide him with psychotherapy and prescriptions. I accept his insurance payment as payment in full. Still, he feels the need to send me gifts (usually some kind of food) every month — often something I don’t even like. I have to figure out whom to give the stuff to; sometimes I have to throw the items away. I have repeatedly told him that he does not need to do that, but the packages continue to arrive.

While I greatly appreciate the good will he is showing toward me, I hate to be wasteful. He is not a wealthy man and shouldn’t spend money on this. Every time I think about telling him that I don’t want any more gifts, I hesitate because I fear that doing so could damage what is a very positive doctor-patient relationship. Name Withheld

Maintaining appropriate boundaries is a key part of a proper professional relationship. The trouble is that you’ve allowed this to go on for far too long. So shifting from “You don’t have to” to “I wish you wouldn’t” does augur an awkward conversation. Still, I’m sure you have the diplomatic skills to tell him, kindly but firmly, that as appreciative as you are of the thought behind these gifts, you have to ask that they stop. As a psychiatrist, you might consider the possibility that you’re more worried than you should be about what may well be a brief period of shared embarrassment.

For several summers after I left home, my aunt and uncle would go to visit my mother and my sister. After my aunt and uncle died, my sister, who is my only sibling, received several hundred thousand dollars from their will, while I got nothing.

I was close to my sister, but this has caused a serious rift. She says she was always nice to them during their stays and always sent holiday cards. She does not plan on splitting her inheritance with me, even though she is in a much better financial situation. We are both in our 70s.

Am I being unreasonable in thinking she should include me in her windfall? Name Withheld

If your sister had won the lottery, would she owe you half her winnings? You evidently think that your aunt and uncle should have treated the two of you equally. But you and your sister didn’t treat them equally. Either way, they were free to leave her money as they chose, and your sister was free to accept it.

My mother-in-law, who lives alone, was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She struggles with completing things by due dates, filling out forms, paying bills, managing technology and keeping track of appointments. We’ve been helping her with all these things. Now driving has become an issue. She has not had any accidents, but her friends have shared concerns about her driving, and she reported that her car was stolen when she couldn’t remember where she parked it. Her neurologist advised that she not drive again until she takes a driving test. Paperwork arrived from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which she has to fill out on time in order to schedule her test.

My question is: How much do we help with the paperwork? She went and got the books to study for the test but then couldn’t recall having done so. Is it ethical to help her complete the forms, make the necessary calls and send them off on time, when there is a risk to others if she does in fact pass both the written and driving portions of her test? My husband would like the authorities to be the ones to give her the official news that she may not drive. But I am concerned that there is actually a good chance she might pass the test. What is our responsibility then, if an accident happens? Name Withheld

As you describe it, the D.M.V. hasn’t specified that she fill out the paperwork herself; this isn’t part of the test. It’s perfectly appropriate, then, to assist her in scheduling the test, if she wants your assistance. The real issue is that you know she doesn’t belong behind the wheel. Find a way to tell her so, as a loving family member who’s worried about what might happen to her and to others if she continues driving. You can take the sting out of it by offering to make arrangements to help her get to where she needs to go. I don’t know how much longer she’ll be able to live on her own, but that’s bound to be a big concern for her at the moment.

I recently had someone house-sit for me, and when I came back, I realized he left a controlled substance behind. I’m not sure if I should talk to him about it. We are friendly but not terribly close. I know him primarily through his sister — with whom I am very close. Part of my concern is that I know, from his sister, that he has a history of substance abuse; she shared with me a lot of the work it took to get him back on track. I’ve thought about talking with him directly, but I’m worried that we don’t have the right relationship to broach such a topic. Should I talk to his sister about it so that she can be aware of red flags? I love her dearly and saw how difficult it was on her to see her brother go through his past addiction. Or would that violate his privacy? Name Withheld, New York

Does this house sitter and recovering addict have a reasonable expectation that you’ll keep from his sister evidence — which he left in your house — that he’s at risk of a recurrence? I don’t see that he does. Neither personal confidence nor professional privilege is at issue. What motivates you is a justified concern for his welfare. You’re not reporting him to the police or making his problem public. You would be discussing the matter with your dear friend, someone who may be in a position to provide her brother with needed support. In ways the philosopher Marilyn Friedman has explored, friends serve as “moral witnesses” to the experiences they relate to one another. Your friend has told you about what she went through with her brother, about her worries and her work. You’re thinking about how he might feel about your disclosing what you found; have you thought about how she would feel about your keeping her in the dark about it? Overcoming addiction can be an ongoing process, and people are more likely to succeed with the help of others.

To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.) Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

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