Where Is the Line Between Joking and Harassment in the Office?

Maintaining a Safe and Welcoming Work Environment

While a joke has the potential to break the ice in a new environment, employees should be cognizant of how it may be received by their coworkers. Beyond creating a hostile workspace, certain discriminatory jokes are even illegal. The line between the two is narrow, but the consequences can be great.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Harassment includes any unwelcome actions based on sex, race, age, or any other protected characteristic. It can take form in verbal or written comments, images, and actions.

When Does Joking Become Harassment?

Jokes are considered harassment when they are generally unwelcome, especially when the victim has asked for the conduct to stop. If the banter is repeated, unreasonable, and creates an unsavory workspace, it is harassment, regardless of the jokester’s intent. Common examples of humor-disguised harassment include:

  • Asking personal questions
  • Inappropriate gestures
  • Innuendos or insensitive stories
  • Jokes that demean a marginalized group
  • Teasing someone about their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristic
  • Unwelcome comments on someone’s appearance

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recognizes these and similar acts as harassment and assert that such behavior creates an offensive working environment.

Overall, it’s best to err on the side of caution when joking in the office. Behaving professionally and refraining from insensitive, distasteful comments allows all to feel welcome and respected.

If you’ve been targeted by inappropriate jokes at the office, contact John P. Mahoney, Esq., Attorneys at Law. Our lawyers will be your advocate to fight for your rights and work to reinstate a proper, welcoming workspace.
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