If you’re like most people, you understand that “not safe for work,” or NSFW, usually refers to sexual content or off-color jokes. Anything not suitable for the workplace can be deemed NSFW, even if it’s not intended that way. The things you say or the videos, memes, or links you share can contribute to either an inclusive workplace or one that marginalizes, threatens, or discriminates against others.
But there’s another meaning behind NSFW, and it deals with your physical safety at work. We’ll explore both.
It’s not all nudge nudge wink wink: how to know if it’s not safe for work and when to listen to that doubt
Design leader Jessica Brown wrote a great brief history of the acronym at Vice, saying the warning (which was added to Merriam-Webster in 2015) evolved from content not suitable for children to “more a warning that you could find yourself having a very awkward conversation with human resources.”
When it comes to sending or receiving NSFW work emails, we shouldn’t need the acronym at all, says Judith Kallos, a WordPress consultant and business coach. “By virtue of having to type it should tell any rational thinking person all they need to know. They should have enough common sense and respect to not send emails with questionable content to someone’s work email.”
The internet allows us to easily share—and overshare. As Mind Tools’ editor Lucy Bishop put its: “Modern work practices and our addiction to social media has blurred the line between the personal and the professional. We are constantly being told to bring our ‘authentic’ selves to work.” But the things we say and share with our friends outside the office shouldn’t necessarily enter the office. And if you’ve decided something is NSFW, perhaps you might consider whether it’s okay for friends too
While forwarding jokes and gifs (NSFW or otherwise) to friends is one thing, doing the same with work colleagues can become a career-ending blunder. Your actions, could be considered discriminatory or sexual harassment, even if you didn’t intend them that way.
Erring on the side of caution is the best practice when you’re wondering if you should send a possibly NSFW link along or even if you should visit a site. Know and stick to your company’s HR policies regarding what is deemed appropriate material and use of office email and chat and even how you use company property and devices (i.e., your phone and computer).
Not only do you not want to lose your job or risk being reprimanded, you also don’t want to make your coworkers feel threatened, uncomfortable, or unsafe.
When it’s physically not safe for work
There's more to NSFW than blue jokes or images you don't want your boss to see. Attorney Wayne D'Angelo, a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren and editor of the firm's Not Safe for Work blog, tells us that while workplaces are generally far safer today than they were for previous generations of workers, workplace safety remains a big concern.
“Most employers are subject to a wide variety of federal, state, and local laws and regulations to ensure that their employees can perform their job duties safely. And if employers ignore those regulations and create an environment that is NSFW, they can face significant fines and penalties.”
The National Safety Council estimates the total cost of work-related preventable injuries and deaths to the U.S. economy in 2017 alone at more than $161 billion. Obviously some places of work and jobs are riskier than others. But even if you work in the relative safety of an office setting, you can be injured on the job, whether tripping over an open file drawer, loose carpeting or electrical cords, or putting your back out from sitting at a workstation that isn't designed with ergonomic principles in mind.
Another example of NSFW is noise. While jackhammers may not tend to operate in your office, your hearing can be damaged by working at places like schools, restaurants, or nightclubs—anywhere you have to shout to make yourself heard to a person an arm’s length away.
“Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules do not apply solely to heavy industry and manufacturing sites,” D’Angelo explains. “Office employers are similarly required to make sure their workspaces are free from recognized hazards and are subject to many of the same injury and illness reporting requirements as manufacturers and other industries.”