From the editors: Company policies on ‘NSFW’

Offices often resemble adult daycares, where harmless amusements are thrust upon us and anything mildly dangerous is kept out of reach.

 
Is this ad safe for work? If not, you may be working at the wrong place. (Photo: Getty; Nabisco)

In mid-April, an Oreo cookie ad circulated on the Internet featuring a breastfeeding baby. The child had his mother’s nipple in his mouth and an Oreo clenched in his fist. “Milk’s favourite cookie” read the tag line. The image was hardly pornography. And yet, when it was posted to the Huffington Post and other sites, it came with a warning label: “Not Safe For Work” or NSFW.

One wonders about the workplace where the ad, which was cheeky but ultimately wholesome, would be thought inappropriate. Yet it received the same four-letter caveat as so much of the web’s popular flotsam. Also marked “NSFW” that week: a rant by Chevy Chase featuring some cussing, a redcarpet photo of Katy Perry where she almost (almost!) exposed a breast, and the road sign for Fucking, Austria.

The widespread use of “NSFW” might seem like undue caution, but those who eschew the label risk controversy. In 2010, movie critic Roger Ebert faced an uproar when he failed to attach a “NSFW” label to a post on Hugh Hefner’s influence on American society, which included a 1975 photo of a Playboy bunny. Despite the article’s scholarly tone, his readers complained that viewing it could cost them their jobs or, at the very least, result in Ebert’s website being blocked from their company’s computers. “But what about the context of the photo? I wondered,” Ebert wrote. “Context didn’t matter. A nude was a nude.”

Rather than trust their employees to behave, companies instead control their access, the equivalent of a mother hiding the scissors because she can’t trust her kids to not cut their own hair. Nearly three-quarters of employers place restrictions on their workers’ Internet access, according to one British study.

That’s not the only way modern corporations demonstrate profound distrust in their employees. As Jasmine Budak explains in “Love among the cubicles,” most companies still refuse to acknowledge that office romance is commonplace, natural and, in many cases, good for morale and productivity. Companies don’t just fail to acknowledge their employees are adults, they increasingly blatantly treat them like children. Google installs slides and climbing walls in their offices, transforming them into oversized playgrounds. Zappos, the online shoe seller, boasts of its workplace conga lines and practice of singling out top-performing employees by having them wear silly hats.

This sort of company-mandated joviality has been widely parodied, from the 1999 cult film Office Space to The Simpsons. Critics argue “forced fun” is oppressive in its own way. “When we commandeer the emotional lives of our employees, we waste a valuable resource,” writes Grant McCracken, a researcher at MIT. “Left to their own devices, employees represent a wonderful variety of attitudes, interests and activities.”

Companies now impose artificial fun on their employees while blocking access to things they might actually enjoy, like Internet ephemera. Offices often resemble adult daycares, where harmless amusements are thrust upon us and anything mildly dangerous is kept out of reach. The problem is, when you treat people like children, they’ll stop feeling responsible for their own actions or, for that matter, for the well-being of the company as a whole. When employees feel they can’t be trusted, it’s truly not safe for work.

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