In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Inside Straight: The Job That Kills The Humor

Years ago, I was a barrel of laughs. (Well, more of a barrel of laughs then than I am now, anyway.)

When I was defending antidepressant-suicide cases, I barely resisted the urge to send in-house counsel an e-mail containing a political cartoon: The little lab rat was dangling (with his tongue hanging out) from a noose in the cage, having plainly just kicked the little stool out from under himself. One of the two researchers in white coats was saying to the other: “We have some bad news on the new antidepressant.”

Herrmann, you idiot! You can photocopy the thing and show it to the in-house lawyer the next time you see him, but the company just can’t have that in its e-mail system! Can you imagine that as Exhibit 1 at trial?

But I didn’t always censor myself. I’d share (funny) on-line humor with colleagues and clients, figuring that they’d appreciate it, and it was a painless way of letting clients know that I was thinking of them. I may well have been violating some firm policy by using the computer system for “non-business” purposes, but who cares, really?

When you start speaking to big audiences, you become more cautious. I wrote in Monday’s Inside Straight column, for example, that something had happened years ago, “when God was young.” I thought long and hard before I pressed the “publish” icon: Who will I offend? Orthodox Jews who never speak or write the name of Gxd? Devout Christians offended by the use of the Lord’s name in vain? Anyone else? Is it worth the risk of giving offense for the small benefit of making one column slightly more interesting?

I threw caution to the wind and “published.” (I’m a brave guy, indeed.)

But that self-censorship occurs only when you’re sitting alone at a computer, thinking about what you can safely say to the world. It’s entirely different when your job [is “title” or “responsibilities” the right word here?] forces you to self-censor during every working minute.

For the first two years after I went in-house, I served as my employer’s global head of litigation, and the self-censorship was minimal. But I then added the duties of global head of compliance, and I now find myself wracked by self-censorship.

Share humor by e-mail with colleagues? It may build esprit de corps, but it surely violates some policy or other. Can the head of compliance properly do it?

And suppose someone doesn’t think the joke is funny?

I now regularly hear complaints about people who shared a joke or video with co-workers and a recipient thought the thing wasn’t “appropriate for the workplace.” I understand the meaning of propriety as well as the next guy, but I hate to turn Compliance into the department that makes the workplace intolerably dull (and a place where everyone walks on eggshells for fear of giving offense). How should a compliance department view itself, anyway: the “department of utter spoilsports” or the “conscience of the company”? (Hey, that’s not bad: “We’re Compliance: The Conscience of the Company.” Can I trademark that?)

It’s not just things as “permanent” as e-mail, either. Last week, someone had messed up. To calm the person down, I said something like: “That’s okay. If we screwed the pooch this time, we’ll let it pass. Next time, we’ll know what’s happening, and we’ll handle it right.”

And I immediately started thinking: “‘Screwed the pooch’? A person can say that, but can the head of compliance say that? Maybe I’ve sinned.”

I guess it’s good to think hard about what belongs in the workplace and what does not, which rules were made to be obeyed and which merely exist, and how folks generally should conduct themselves. But I, for one, find it awfully hard to be “purer than Caesar’s wife.” This job carries with it a certain emotional burden.

I was never meant to be so good.

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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