What does the incident at the Oscars tell us about acceptable workplace behaviours?

Normally the night of the Academy Awards conjures up the idea of incredibly expensive outfits, wealthy patrons, and emotional speeches where everyone is thanked for the contributions they made to the winner’s journey. This years Oscars didn’t do that.  This year’s event saw a man of worldwide acclaim punch another man of equal standing across the face because of something he’d said.  What does this incident at the Oscars tell us about acceptable workplace behaviours?

If we strip away the glitz and glamour of the event (and that the protagonists are wealthy well known celebrities and the event is routinely watched by 1 billion people around the globe) and look at this for what it actually is.

For those readers who don’t know what happened on the evening of Sunday 27th March 2022 at the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood, Chris Rock, a well-known comedian, came on stage to present an award. As is customary he made a few jokes, one of which referenced Jada Pinkett-Smith’s hairstyle. This joke clearly upset Pinkett-Smith and realising just how upset she was, her husband, Will Smith, walked up onto the stage and punched Chris Rock in the face. This action was then further supported by some flagrant language.

As with many situations it is not always sensible to base a judgement on the end result.  The situation as a whole needs to be understood. Actors are self-employed, ergo irrespective of the monies they earn, the Oscars are a work event. Smith was there because he’d been nominated for his industry’s most prestigious award. Chris Rock was there because his work is respected and he was deemed a suitable fit for the category he was presenting.  Nonetheless he was there to work. Smith was in attendance with his wife who suffers from alopecia, a condition that can cause hair loss.  Rock’s joke was aimed at her cropped hair.

The ensuing situation therefore raises a series of questions.  What mental health support is available to self-employed people who are in highly pressurised jobs?  What support is offered from governing organisations or Guild’s for those who may be struggling? Is it ever acceptable to make a joke about another’s appearance or medical condition whether that be on television in front of a billion people or in the office with one other person around? How are issues therefore addressed when people reach their breaking point and how harshly should they be judged in the workplace?

Looking at the first issue, workplace stress takes many forms and occurs in every sphere of industry. How we all deal with stress and pressure is different from person to person and dependent on the situation. Some people don’t find stress particularly prohibitive whereas others can find it debilitating.

Stress in known as the ‘silent killer’ due to the severe effects it can have on the human body both from a mental and physical aspect. It can be argued that Will Smith is in an unusual work position, he is undoubtedly very successful and wealthy, the pursuit for which contribute to a lot of people’s stress. 

However, he is globally famous.

Having worked with individuals of similar standing, this level of fame and intrusion into one’s life should not be underestimated. Granted, it’s a career choice to pursue acting or celebrity but preparing or equipping yourself for continuous scrutiny of your life and your family is not something all of us can relate to.

It is easy to assume that just because they are wealthy, they have all the answers and can pay for all the support they may require.  However, what happens when you don’t realise you need support or assistance until that breaking point is reached or surpassed.

Some industries are taking the proactive steps of employing mental health first-aiders at work, championing wellness support and a healthy work-life balance to safeguard their staff from workplace stress.  This is a relatively new approach and sadly mental health troubles still attract a level of societal stigma.  Nonetheless industries thrive when their employees are happy and feel supported. Actors and performers are no different, irrespective of wealth or celebrity status they are human beings who happen to work in a multi-billion dollar industry that surely has a duty of care to ensure that all who work within it are effectively supported to navigate the challenges it entails as do all employers.

The next issue is acceptable workplace language. Safeguarding employees covers a vast array of issues but at its heart safeguarding is there to provide a safe and inclusive environment where people are free from harm.

I think we all know that words can be harmful, dangerous and inflammatory depending on the situation. Nevertheless, the question remains – is it ever acceptable to make light of someone’s appearance or medical condition?

There have been comments made that if Jada Pinkett-Smith was suffering from a “more severe” condition Mr. Rock wouldn’t have made a comment. This narrative is absurd to me.  How can the level of illness ever have an impact on what jokes are made? Surely no joke about illness is ever acceptable but judging by the thoughts flying around in the main this is not necessarily the case.

The severity of Jada Pinkett-Smith’s condition isn’t any of our business.  Surely as human beings we shouldn’t think it amusing to highlight another’s suffering.  

Ms Pinkett-Smith has used her platform to raise the challenges she has faced in respect of her condition.  She has charted how much she has struggled with it and has used her position to raise the issue, to share the challenges she and other sufferers face in order to raise awareness and to educate. It is widely reported within the alopecia community that one distinct issue shared by many within the community is the fear of their changing appearance, the loss of female identity and a reluctance to be seen in a public setting.

Therefore, it cannot be underestimated how much courage it must have taken for Pinkett-Smith to accompany her husband to the Academy Awards knowing that approximately 1 billion people across the globe would be viewing her appearance.

However, she did it.

She went, she supported the person she loves and then for a quick laugh another person thought it was acceptable to laugh at the way she looked and the condition she suffers from. This comment arguably validates the reservation other sufferers have about venturing into the public, that people will point and laugh.

As with her husband’s situation, Ms Pinkett-Smiths is rather extreme due to the career that she pursues but this doesn’t invalidate the fact that she is a human being, with human emotions who at the very least should expect the kindness and empathy of her peers.  This should be something we all expect in the workplace.

However, what is clear is that education around workplace language has a long way to go. This is often construed as cancel culture or censorship, however I would argue that it is the exact opposite.  For me it focuses on respect for yourself and for others by taking the proactive steps necessary  to broaden your mind and understanding as to how our words can impact on others.

I don’t know many people who would go out of their way to offend their colleagues or clients.  This will never be achieved by sitting in your own echo chamber.  It requires proactive education and engagement with different communities. As previously mentioned, safeguarding is all about creating an inclusive space where people are free from harm, to effectively safeguard employees this requires continued engagement and the ability to evolve.

Will Smith has since apologised for his actions, of course violence can never be condoned.  However there is discussion now as to whether he should be stripped of his Oscar or be suspended from the Academy. I am not going to comment on which course of action the Academy should chose however what I am going to ask is how do they and wider organisations prevent this type of situation happening again?

To have an effective workplace environment where all can flourish, there must be an inclusive culture, where people are able to admit they are struggling, where there are avenues available to them to seek support if they need it without fear of being ostracised or effecting their career progression. Effective and evolving educational practices that promote the positive use of language to facilitate a safe and cohesive work environment is essential.  

By having effective safeguarding practices in place, employers not only safeguard their employees, they safeguard their business by enabling all to thrive.

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