A little levity at work can reduce stress, make the day go by faster, and help to create a more pleasant work environment. However, jokes of an inappropriate nature or ones that are made at the expense of someone on site can be hurtful, offensive, and result in problems.
If jokes are lewd or target someone’s personal life, they can be both upsetting and damaging to the cohesiveness of the team. They can even culminate in serious legal jeopardy for the business by creating a hostile workplace.
If this happens and an employee reports the issues, the business may face legal repercussions. According to California law, sexual harassment in the workplace is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. When things go too far, businesses may face financial penalties.
It is imperative for businesses to ensure that all employees, from top to bottom, are aware that making inappropriate jokes could be perceived as sexual harassment.
When Jokes Go Too Far
Illegal Sexual Harassment in The Workplace
A joke is just a joke, right? This belief is common among many. They may wonder why some people don’t have a sense of humor. The truth is, jokes can be mean and hurtful. And, when they are made in the workplace and focus on certain topics, they can even be considered sexual harassment, a serious issue for both the person who makes the joke and the business as a whole.
In California, jokes can be considered harassment when:
- Jokes are so pervasive that they create an environment that one may define as hostile
- Jokes that may make an employee feel their job would be threatened should they speak out about it
- Employees believe that approving of or at least tolerating jokes in a certain way becomes a condition of keeping their jobs.
As an employer, you must understand that even one joke can be serious or offensive enough that a reasonable person would consider that single offense to create a hostile work environment.
It is the responsibility of the supervisory employees in all offices to be aware of how jokes can become a liability for the company and to appropriately educate the employees and warn them against such humor.
Types of Jokes at Work that Can Interfere with Job Performance
Sometimes it can be difficult for employers to determine which jokes are okay and which are not. Nuance plays a role, and not every joke is offensive.
That said, there are some topics that should simply not be the subject of jokes — ever. They should be off-limits in all situations in every type of business. Jokes like this can be incredibly hurtful and interfere with an employee’s ability to perform their job to the best of their ability. These include:
- Jokes about someone’s appearance. These can easily create a hostile work environment for an employee, particularly if the joke focuses on their bod
- Jokes about someone’s ability to perform their work based upon their gender.
- Jokes about someone’s ethnicity related to appearance or jokes that play on stereotypes. These can be severe enough in only one instance to create a hostile workplace. This can include “humorous” nicknames for workers based on certain physical attributes.
Without a doubt, some instances are more obvious than others. For example, telling a joke or story that refers to a situation involving sex or an encounter of a sexual nature between people can clearly contribute to a hostile work environment. And making an explicit joke regarding a person’s sexuality or sexual orientation is one of those instances where a single incident could result in the creation of a work environment where that person could no longer remain employed.
Not All Inappropriate Jokes are Directed Toward an Individual
As employers and employees, it is easy to see how one person’s making a joke about another could be considered hurtful or offensive. It is important for everyone to recognize, however, that jokes that are not even directed toward a specific person can also be viewed as sexual harassment.
Making a sexual joke or comment intended to be humorous in front of a group can also have negative consequences. Jokes sent in a group email or a workplace online chat can be considered harassment, too. If one person in a group receives or hears a joke and finds it to be offensive, the opinions of the others are irrelevant. It may still meet the standard of creating a hostile workplace.
Have You Been Offended by a Joke at Work?
Understanding Your Rights
The government of California takes care of those who work in the state. It has laws in place to protect them from workplace harassment. In fact, the employer is ultimately responsible for maintaining a safe work environment.
While California employers who have more than 50 employees are required to provide sexual harassment prevention training (two hours, every two years, to all supervisors), even the most compliant cannot control the individual actions of all of their employees. Truth be told, despite the best of intentions, sometimes people just behave inappropriately. Employers are also responsible for offering their employees information regarding sexual harassment.
If you were the victim of sexual harassment at work through inappropriate jokes or comments, you can take steps to rectify the issue.
What You Should Do
If you believe you are being harassed, there are several things you can do. These include:
- Research: Check to see if your company has a published sexual harassment policy. If they do, review this document carefully and follow the instructions it provides. In all cases, it is important to communicate, always in writing, and to keep an account of the date, time, and details of every incident (if there were more than one). Be sure to include the names of everyone involved, including those who may have simply witnessed the event but did not actually tell or communicate the joke.
- Report: Based upon the information in any existing policy, inform the people designated as responsible. If you cannot find a policy, report the incident to your employer. If your supervisor was the culprit, you can report directly to human resources. You must let them know what has happened. If you do not communicate the issues, you may not be eligible for compensation.
- File a Complaint: Identify the appropriate federal or state agency to contact. Consider the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Because these organizations share information, you only need to file with one of them.
- Engage an Attorney: Depending upon the response from the governmental agencies and then your employer, you may need the assistance of a sexual harassment lawyer. These professionals can guide you through the appropriate steps moving forward. Often it is wise to speak with an attorney at the onset of your journey. He or she can help guide you and provide important advice, including deadlines for filing claims in California.
Understanding how to address sexual harassment in the workplace is important, and making sure that you follow each step appropriately is critical. You want to ensure that you do everything in your power to help effectively address the situation at hand.